Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein said as long as her colleagues support the idea, she is willing to have a dialogue with Board of Finance members and other town officials regarding budget and enrollment trends that were updated by finance board Vice Chair Joe Kearney last week.
During his presentation January 13, Mr Kearney used a graph to illustrate what he described as an “unsustainable” trend of increasing school spending despite declining student enrollment.
Plotting data from the last school enrollment study to predict anticipated future student population trends, and an assumed average 2.1 percent annual school budget increase, Mr Kearney believes local taxpayers could be facing a per student expenditure of $20,000 by 2019 unless district spending is dialed back.
He noted that over the course of the last decade, district employment of full-time personnel has trended up by 13.6 percent while student population has receded by 4.8 percent. And even if the town is to adopt a minimum budget requirement as allowed by state law, he projected per-pupil spending will increase.
This prompted finance board Chairman John Kortze to restate his call for a meeting with education officials and school board members to conduct “the conversation we never had as a town.” Mr Kortze said after this week’s meeting that the data presented by Mr Kearney only reinforced trends and predictions that are familiar to his board.
“It’s something we’ve been seeing for some time, but those trends are getting more dramatic,” Mr Kortze said of the disparity between student population numbers and budget escalation. He said he has written a “number of letters” to the school board chair “asking what the game plan is” regarding the district’s response to these trends.
Mr Kortze said he sent the first letter in April the day after the education side of the town’s first split budget in decades failed with “the strongest delta of No votes” he has seen in years. This despite the efforts of many town officials on both the municipal and education sides working together to get the spending plan passed.
Mr Kortze believes those voters who rejected the district’s proposed budget earlier this year did so because they had lingering questions and concerns about why taxpayers were being asked to provide so much more funding to the school district when student population declines were so drastic.
“It all comes back to that question,” Mr Kortze said.
So as the town moves into the next budget season, the finance board chairman said he fears the school district budget will remain a point of significant contention, especially among the more responsive senior voting segment, unless public discussions begin to occur.
“We either need a better understanding of [why the district is requesting] an increase, or [an explanation of] the school board’s game plan to address enrollment decline,” he said.
Responding to Mr Kortze’s request for a public dialogue on the budget/enrollment issues, Ms Leidlein said she received the first request around the time former school superintendent Janet Robinson was departing and Dr John Reed was assuming acting superintendent duties, which made it difficult to schedule.
Ms Leidlein said she received Mr Kortze’s latest letter this week, and she plans to take up that request with her board at its next meeting.
The school board chair also noted that she wants to have the most productive dialogue possible, and she is not sure that can happen without a new school enrollment study, which her board has already been discussing.
“I’m very interested in having that dialogue with the Board of Finance. But I want to have enough data so that discussion can be productive,” Ms Leidlein said.
According to the information presented by Mr Kearney in his latest budget trend analysis:
*Newtown’s education budget has risen by almost twice the rate of inflation or $11,503,325 since 2002-2003, while student population has decreased by 250 students.
*Town selectman’s budget has risen by less than the rate of inflation since 2002-2003 despite town population increase of 11 percent (2,748 residents)
*Education staffing growth rate increased by 13.6 percent (89 full-time “equivalents”) while student population shrank by 4.8 percent (250 students) since 2002-2003
*Regarding education staffing in full-time equivalents, this data is directly from the school district budget books and is adjusted for actual figures when known
*Debt service from 2014 on is projected to grow by one percent per year
*Student population growth uses the latest school population study, and its middle projection of growth/decline
*The declining student population is sufficient to cause per pupil spending to rise even with no increase to the education budget and it will also rise with state allowed reductions to the budget