Budget Hearing Highlights Info And Advocacy

Following the shortest public budget hearing in recent memory, the council will take up deliberations on the 2013-14 proposal with the possibility of acting on the request as early as April 3, according to council Chairman Jeff Capeci.

Only three citizens addressed the council during the approximately 20-minute session. In previous years, public hearings have swelled to the extent that they were held in the high school lecture room and auditorium.

But there were plenty of empty seats in the Newtown Municipal Center council chambers this evening with just a handful of other residents attending along with those who addressed the panel. By town charter, the council must vote send the budget proposal to public referendum by April 10.

This year’s budget referendum will be Tuesday, April 23.

The council will consider further reductions, or could send the $111,149,824 spending request to voters as is. The April 23 referendum will mark the first public vote under a new split, or bifurcated, budget initiative that was approved by voters last fall.

This means residents and taxpayers can approve or reject either or both the town and school district proposals. The April ballot will also feature budget questions to help guide the council if either or both measures fail.

Before sending a recommendation to the council, Newtown’s Board of Finance reduced the district’s proposal by a little more than one percent. The finance board also set the final town-side request at $39,054,520, of which $10,058,924 is debt service on committed school and town capital borrowing.

Board of Education budget request stands at $73,042,343. During finance board deliberations, officials endorsed a $750,000 adjustment, reducing the proposed budget increase to 5.47 percent.

The board also made adjustments to the municipal-side budget request, including moving $420,000 to contingency to fund a number of police school safety officers and vehicles required to provide certified and armed officers at each of Newtown’s public schools.

An added $150,000 was approved to create a $50,000 grant pool for each local private school to enhance onsite security.

During the March 27 public hearing, Michelle Embree Ku addressed comments and further reductions suggested by finance officials based on the school district’s current staffing levels and down trending student enrollment.

Describing a “perfect storm” scenario, Ms Ku ticked off myriad budgetary challenges including school security, reaccreditation, mandated teacher evaluations, aging technology, maintenance and infrastructure concerns, saying that all need to be addressed in the current spending plan.

At the same time, she said the district must maintain its current level of performance.

She referenced a California study when addressing comments from finance officials who recommended a noneducational model for adjusting teaching personnel to meet general class size guidelines.

Ms Ku said cost is not directly dependent on student numbers.

“There are other costs that are fixed,” she said. “Reductions due to enrollment have been taking place over recent years.”

She said real personnel reductions could not effectively occur until a grade population has decreased between one-fifth and one-third.

“I think it’s a disservice to taxpayers to reduce the discussion to a simple ratio of cost versus enrollment — the formula is much more complicated,” she added. “I don’t think you can look at education using a manufacturing model, because children and teachers are not widgets that can be distributed, downsized, or restructured.”

She noted that in the recent California study showed that declining enrollments are detrimental to overall education, because of the inability to recruit and retain front line, support, and administrative staff. She also noted increased transportation costs to get fewer students to facilities farther apart.

Michelle Hankin concurred with Ms Ku’s input, asking the council to send the budget request to taxpayers with no further reductions. She also noted the unknowns of security, mental health, and other support needs as the community moves into a new school year.

“We have over five thousands kids and hundreds of staff that have been affected [by the events of 12/14],” she said.

She also asked the council to preserve the contingency fund to increase school security funding.

Richard Woycik, a former councilman, noted the proposed increases recognizing the “extenuating circumstances” of 12/14. And he recognized the finance board reductions have previously resulted in no negative impact to the school’s operations.

“I believe it’s necessary and urgent that the town adopts a fiscal policy that is fair to all town agencies while recognizing the influence of local, state, and national economic conditions,” he said. The balance of Mr Woycik’s presentation included material from multiple sources, backing up his assertion that more Newtown families may be affected by those distresses conditions than in previous years.

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