School Officials Answer Public Budget Questions
School Officials Answer Public Budget Questions
By Eliza Hallabeck
In the April 9 edition of The Newtown Bee residents were asked to submit budget questions they would like town officials to respond to. Board of Education Chair Lillian Bittman, Vice-Chair Kathy Fetchick and Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson answered residentsâ questions on the education budget on Wednesday, April 14. (A story posed to town officials will appear in the April 23 edition of The Bee.)
How much of the school budget is allocated to sports traveling teams? Perhaps the students who are on those teams should pay part of the way.
Dr Robinson: The sports teams at the high school, their budget is $526,000, and that includes all the teams, with their travel costs, uniforms and coaching fees. The students do pay-for-play. Those funds do not affect our budget. For the year the sport takes place, however, it goes back to the town and back to the general fund. We are looking at the costs of sports and after school activities and looking at some way to do a model that is very similar to what the band does currently, in terms of having parent corporations that would do fundraising. Lillian, maybe you want to speak a little bit to that.
Ms Bittman: Well, Iâm a band parent, so I had brought this up. It is not a perfect solution, because it requires a lot of hard work by the parents. And obviously it raises the fee to actually participate in that activity or sport, and there can be inequities in there. But, it is something we are investigating. I had found out it is a model that California uses quite frequently, so in this kind of a budget season, obviously we are looking at everything. We had asked Janet to investigate whether or not that could happen specifically if parent corporations could pay the stipend of coaches, which currently the marching band is not doing because of contractual reasons. So, that is one of the hurdles we need to get over.
Ms Fetchick: One of the big concerns also is the ability of some students who may not be able to pay to play, and maybe some hesitation on the students or parents to come forward to say, âLook, we would love to participate, but we canât afford it.â And in this economy, weâve got things happening on both ends, and to ask people to pay more, it may not be possible for some students and parents.
Since some Newtown teachers may be laid-off as result of the new budget, why donât Newtown teachers show solidarity and agree, during these hard times, to freeze their pay for one or two years?
Dr Robinson: Actually, the teachers have agreed to freeze their pay. They have a new three-year contract that was signed recently, and they have taken a zero general wage increase and a zero step increase, both of which would normally impact their take home pay, their salary. So they are at zero this year. The only increase is that, this year they have five furlough days, and three of those furlough days will be put back in for next year, so that their only increase is about 1.6 percent. And that is simply due to working three additional days, but they have agreed to take zero.
Ms Bittman: And the three additional days were put in as part of the contract negotiations that achieve the zero increase in the first year this summer.
I notice the budget line item for $9,000 SMART board maintenance. I was surprised to find one of these nifty gadgets in my first graderâs classroom last fall. My question is how many SMART boards do we have deployed, and by school level (high, middle, elementary, intermediate)? What is the average cost of purchasing a new one in 2010? Please explain the return on investment we as taxpayers get from these SMART boards. And lastly, how much chalk can you buy for $9,000?
Dr Robinson: Well, Iâll give you the numbers on the SMART boards first. We have 88 SMART boards that are deployed in all the elementary schools. We have six at Reed and 39 Mimios, which are small devises that turn a white board, in essence, into a SMART board, or close to it. At the middle school we have 12 SMART boards and 11 Mimios, and at the high school we have three SMART boards and two Mimios. There is also another device called a SMART table we are using with our [special education] students, which is a small table they can sit around that is interactive.
The benefit of the SMART boards, tables and Mimios, research is showing that students are much more engaged with this new technology. When you see the students in the classroom, they participate. They can go up and touch the board, manipulate the numbers, the figures, the drawings. You see second graders who have an attention span that is much shorter than what they have now with the SMART boards. And the new research coming out shows the engagement is much higher. We do know that engagement is a precursor for learning. So, obviously, if we can engage the students more in a medium they are comfortable with, they are all digital natives, they do a great job, even the kindergarten kids, do a greatÂ job with the SMART boards. They really enjoy it. If we can engage the kids more, then that will effect more learning on their part. The average cost of SMART board, currently, and technology as everyone has seen, does go down, a little bit each year, is about $3,900. There are some new products coming out that are even more durable than the SMART boards we had in the past. Technology is advancing so fast, and we are trying to keep pace with that. And, as those things come out the SMART board prices seem to drop a little bit. The other part of that question was how much chalk does $9000 buy? We donât have chalk boards in our classrooms, and we donât buy chalk at all. So I would have no idea how to answer that question.
Ms Fetchick: I would just like to say that a lot of the SMART board initiative was, in the beginning, started by the PTAâs. Sandy Hook School won a Vangaurd award, and was able to use those funds, plus additional PTA funds to really kick the whole process off. And, they have paid for quite a few of those SMART boards themselves through the PTA funds. I know that one of the retiring assistant principals from Sandy Hook School last year, we had given a gift of money through the PTA to her, and she wanted that money put towards SMART boards. So a lot of it has been self-funded in the elementary schools.
Ms Bittman: And, I would just like to add from a parentâs perspective that it helps in the classroom a lot. What happens is, it is not just the children being able to go up and interact with the board, but also the teacher can then automatically pull up a video that supplements the lesson. It is definitely more of a high-tech environment, and these children are constantly bombarded with video images, so we have to teach in a way that they respond to today. Thatâs the digital natives that Janet referred to.Â
Would it ever be possible to spend less money than we did in the previous year? Why not?
Ms Fetchick: Actually as a whole, the town spent less money overall if you include the town and the school side budget. Our budget for this year was .43 percent over last year, and the townâs budget was, I forget the actually figure, but I think it was about five percent less than the previous year. Then when they had to do an amendment to their budget this year that brought that number to an over six percent decrease from the previous year. On the education side there is a statute that says we cannot spend less than we did the previous year, so the furthest we could go down would be zero. There is a bill at the state level currently, that allows for the process. I donât know what the status is of it today, but I did read there is a bill out there that says it would be possible to spend less if your enrollment had decreased. It was a very nominal amount. It was not that much. If you have ten less kids you can spend $30,000 less. It was not a large amount of a reduction.
Dr Robinson: I just think that one thing people have to remember is all of us are living, ourselves personally, that each year our utilities go up. Although, once I did experience a drop in my oil bill, but by and large, people have to understand that the cost of running seven schools have built in costs that do escalate each year. If it is necessary to keep a budget flat, those costs are going to go up. We have no control over them. You have to take money to make it up, out of the education piece.Â
I donât know if the town or the BOE is in a vacuum or just chooses to ignore the recession that we are in the throws of at this time. Just about everyone has lost resources in some way, whether through investments, loss of job, foreclosure or bankruptcy. I would expect the taxes to remain exactly the same as last year or even be reduced. The residents of Newtown are not experiencing an inflow of additional monies so what makes the BO E , in particular, think that the residents all have the ability to pay more? Do we really want defaulting on taxes to be an added reason to threaten our homes? Think about it, we all have learned to tighten our belts in some way. Shouldnât the town and the BOE learn as well?
Ms Bittman: Iâll take that one. From a Board of Ed perspective, the residents are our parents, so we are concerned about that obviously. Although, with what Janet said, things do go up, and we tried very hard this year to put our infrastructure costs out there with the Board of Finance, to let them know what we were trying to massage to get those prices down, which is a moving target, especially this time of the year when you are trying to lock in those costs. To take it back a step, when Janet met with our principals, way back in the fall, she gave them the mission of zero-based budgeting, which means you take your budget and you donât necessarily do everything you did last year. You base it on today. When she brought us the budget she had already taken teachers out based on enrollment, which is what this bill would be suggesting in the future. The board itself, then cut maintenance, cut computers, cut some of these other areas, cut professional development flat. So we did what we could to not impact education directly, in light of the infrastructure costs that we knew would be there no matter what, as well as contractual obligations that we have a relatively low control over. So as far as taxes, everyone pays taxes, including our parents, so it doesnât do the Board of Ed any good to come in and want to raise taxes unless we can justify it, and that is what we tried very hard this year to do, to justify the part of the budget that was flexible.
More Questions And Answers
More questions the school board members hear frequently were submitted and answered by Dr Robinson, Ms Bitmman and Ms Fetchick. Those questions and answers are available at www.newtownbee.com. Video highlights and audio of the interview are also available on The Beeâs website.