WALLINGFORD — After a nearly five-hour public workshop came to a close Wednesday night, the Board of Education voted to approve a final budget for the 2023-2024 academic year, setting the stage for far-reaching cuts touching both staffing and services within town public schools.
The finalized cost reductions came after weeks of deliberation as the board faced an over $3 million deficit between its roughly $116 million budget request and the approximately $113 million ultimately approved by Mayor William Dickinson Jr. and the Town Council.
Members approached the Wednesday meeting with nearly $300,000 in funding back in consideration after the Town Council overrode a veto from Dickinson.
Reductions to non-salary items will total $1,918,310 and will include cuts totaling $37,200 to summer school stipends, $300,000 to reading programs, $91,079 to textbooks, $376,655 to instructional software and supplies and $163,887 to the district contingency account, as well as several other provisions.
Wallingford schools will also see $1,306,690 in staffing cuts, removing four new paraeducator positions and leaving an open special education clerking role, an IT Department position, and two middle school world language vacancies unfilled. The district will also make cuts to part-time middle school office staff and lay off the financial equivalent of one curriculum coordinator, one high school career counselor, 6.5 high school teachers and a physical education teacher.
The board reversed course on its initial proposal to slash the financial equivalent of one elementary school Spanish teacher, four library media specialists, and 20 first grade paraeducators, opting to make cuts to administrative roles after facing backlash from educators and residents.
While shifting a portion of the layoff burden to administration-based positions allowed the board to keep several educators on the district payroll, member Jen Passaretti said the $290,000 budget increase could be credited with salvaging several roles which may have otherwise remained on the chopping block.
“I remember saying to one of the other board members, when we got the news [of the added funds], I looked at them when I said ‘the Town Council just saved three jobs,’ ” Passaretti said. “Between those two categories, we are able to save several of those jobs because of the Town Council adding that extra, whatever it was, $290,000.”
Of the non-salary items to be scaled back next year, the contingency budget drew substantial debate between members, as the $500,000 account was previously expected to remain untouched.
After deliberation Wednesday night, however, the board ultimately slashed contingency funding by $163,887 — enough to save a part-time maintenance job and one high school career counselor role originally set to be cut from the budget.
The move, Passaretti said, came as members recognized the vast majority of the half million dollar emergency fund remains largely untapped on an annual basis.
“Ideally, we want to hang on to that contingency fund because that’s our rainy day fund in case something happens that we aren’t expecting,” Passaretti said. “But, after running the numbers in the last 10 years, the average amount of us touching it is like $100,000. So, I think that was the data that we needed to comfortably reduce that amount.”
The final budget reduction, totaling $3,225,000, represented what 22-year Board of Education veteran Michael Votto labeled one of the town’s most sweeping shakeups in recent memory, even with a fiscally conservative mayor known for cutting costs to maintain a low local tax rate.
Votto attributed the atypically aggressive budget slashing to external economic factors, such as lingering high inflation, and said districtwide operating costs, particularly utilities, have skyrocketed in recent years, placing a financial strain on the town to maintain the same volume of educational services.
“I have been on the board for 22 years,” Votto said. “I would think this is probably one of the times that we had one of the largest (cuts) or at least some of the larger ones. In the past, the cuts have been minor nature, and we were able to find the monies, but this was a fairly big cut. I think the issue is the economy across the whole country. It’s bad, and I think costs have gone up tremendously, and I think that also had an effect on the fact that we had a larger cut this time.”