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Board of Education Weighs Its Budget Options



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Board of Education Weighs Its Budget Options

By Eliza Hallabeck

Meeting for the first time since the Board of Finance reduced its requested budget by $2.5 million, the Board of Education discussed different options for action from Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson on Tuesday, March 16.

The 2010–2011 school district’s $69,415,876 budget was approved by the board on February 9, reflecting a 4.8 percent increase over last year’s spending package. On March 8, the Board of Finance reduced the school board’s requested 2010–2011 increase by $2.5 million, leaving the school district with just a $679,806 increase for the coming fiscal year.

Dr Robinson began the budget presentation by describing the budget process for members of the community in attendance. The budget begins with department heads and principals putting together their budgets with the superintendent and the director of business, she explained. It then is gone over by the superintendent before being presented to the school board. The budget then moves before the Board of Finance before passing to the Legislative Council, and finally it goes to a town referendum. If the budget is rejected, it goes back to the Legislative Council before returning to referendum. The process repeats until the budget passes.

“So at this point we are not at our final numbers,” Dr Robinson said, “and we will not be making final decisions.”

The next step in the budget process now, she said, is a Legislative Council public hearing scheduled for March 25 at 7 pm in the Lecture Hall at Newtown High School.

This year the budget began by looking at what the district needs to do to meet the needs of educating students while balancing it with the economic situation, she said.

“We did have to start with reductions from the get-go,” said Dr Robinson, “and now I have to look at what we can do to meet the greater reductions we now have.”

Staffing reductions in the school budget were reactions of enrollment, which, Dr Robinson said, are reducing at the elementary levels and increasing at the high school. Later during the meeting, the school board voted unanimously to approve $17,400 to fund an enrollment study.

Dr Robinson presented two options the school board could use to find the $2.5 million reduction to the 2010–2011 school budget increase.

Option A showed reduced infrastructure costs, including electricity, a change to the budgeted reimbursement rate for the Special Education Excess Cost Grant and medical insurance reductions for a total of $1,272,913; renegotiating transportation contracts, both with the individually contracted owner/operators and with MTM Transportation; the elimination of funding for after-school activities at Reed Intermediate School and Newtown Middle School (NMS) and some specific activities at the high school, a combined amount of $212,406; and staffing reductions totaling $541,820.

“Keep in mind there is a risk here,” said Dr Robinson, explaining the reimbursement rate for the Special Education Excess Cost Grant reimbursement rate may vary. If that happens, Dr Robinson said the school board is not permitted to keep a contingency fund, and that may lead to a hole in the budget for next year.

Staffing reductions listed in Option A were one position at the school department, the Family and Consumer Science teaching position at Newtown Middle School, the computer teacher at NMS, two teachers at the grade seven level at NMS, one health education teacher at Newtown High School (NHS), one art teacher at NHS, one nurse at St Rose, one technology specialist and one bus driver position currently open.

Option B showed the same savings as the first option, but listed more staffing reductions. Added staffing reductions in the second option were one position at the school department, two classroom teachers at Reed Intermediate School, one third grade teacher at Sandy Hook School, one third grade teacher at Middle Gate School, one fourth grade teacher at Middle Gate School and one fourth grade teacher at Head O’ Meadow.

Both Dr Robinson and school board chair Lillian Bittman stressed during the meeting that these are options the board is looking into and will not know for certain until the budget moves further along in its process.

A full audio recording of Dr Robinson’s presentation to the school board is available at www.newtownbee.com. After her presentation board members discussed further options for finding the $2.5 million.

Ms Bittman brought up the format the NHS Marching Band uses to fund itself, based on charges to students participating and parent volunteers. She used that model to look at after school activities.

“I totally endorse what our after-school activities do for our children,” she said, but added the core of public education is education.

 On Wednesday, school board Vice Chair Kathy Fetchick said she would like to look at the budget with school principals, fellow board members, Dr Robinson and Assistant Superintendent Linda Gejda to look at further options and strategic possibilities for the future.

With two of the current obligations in the budget, she said the board will be $1.4 million in the hole for next year.

“I think we need to be looking at this as a multi-year thing,” said Ms Fetchick.

Also on Wednesday, Ms Bittman said any superfluous costs in the budget, have already been taken out.

“I wish we could make decisions,” said Ms Bittman, “but we are just not at that point in the process.”

For the next meeting, she asked her board members to bring all the options to the table, or to email her with ideas.

According to Ms Bittman, the school board is looking at making hard choices.

“I am very hopeful the Legislative Council will see that, and will restore part of that money,” Ms Bittman said on Wednesday.

Departing Principals

Sandy Hook School Principal Donna Pagé is retiring and Middle Gate Principal Judith Liestman may soon announce her departure, depending on a position in New York, due to a family relocation.

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