School Budget Approved With No Increase, Security Budget Tabled

After reviewing its budget goals for the 2014-15 fiscal year, the Board of Education approved a spending plan during its meeting on Thursday, February 6, with no increase over the previous year.

The board also tabled a second motion that would have submitted a security budget, separate from the school board’s 2014-15 budget, on to the Board of Selectman, Board of Finance, and Legislative Council for review.

Interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed presented his budget on January 23. The superintendent’s proposed operating budget for 2014-15 totaled $71,580,034, which reflected a $534,730, or a 0.75 percent, increase over the 2013-14 $71,045,304 budget.

Once passed by the Board of Education, the 2014-15 school budget will go before the Board of Finance and the Legislative Council before being presented to voters through referendum.

After Dr Reed explained he believes he can use a portion of grant money — from the first phase of a Justice Assistance Grant— and move some projects into the current budget to reduce his first 2014-15 budget proposal by $395,249, the school board deliberated other areas where reductions could be made.

School board Secretary Kathy Hamilton made multiple motions to reduce the budget in different areas, but those motions all failed. One motion would have set a defined spending amount for the technology budget for each fiscal year, and another motion would have done the same for the public building and site maintenance budget. Both motions would have decreased the spending plans for those portions of the 2014-15 budget.  

Board of Education member David Freedman also suggested reducing the number of iPads set to be replaced in 2014-15 by half, but board Chair Debbie Leidlein suggested not making specific reductions to the budget. Instead, she recommended making modifications and allowing department heads to decide where to make changes.

Ms Hamilton also made a motion to reduce the Newtown High School’s proposed budget by $300,000, after sharing a review of high school enrollment, class size, and a 2006 New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) review that placed NHS on “warning status.” NEASC is set to visit NHS again in 2015 for another accreditation visit.

“I just feel that we are overstaffed at the high school,” Ms Hamilton said.

Staffing at the high school, Dr Reed said, should have been an issue brought up prior to the school budget discussions. He also said he would begin looking into the issue, while recommending a study be completed.

“There’s a lot to be considered here,” said Dr Reed regarding staff and class options at the high school.

Ms Hamilton’s motion to reduce the high school budget failed in a 5-2 vote, with Ms Hamilton and Mr Freedman supporting the motion.

Near the end of the budget discussion, Mr Freedman moved to reduce the proposed spending plan by roughly $139,000— which represented the remaining increase over the 2013-14 budget after the $395,249 suggested modification by Dr Reed — to be taken out of the budget at Dr Reed's discretion. The motion passed after discussion with a 5-2 vote, with BOE members John Vouros and Michelle Ku opposed.

The Board of Education went on to unanimously pass the 2014-15 budget with no increase from the current fiscal year.


Security Budget Tabled

As Dr Reed explained to the school board, First Selectman Pat Llodra requested the school board pass a security budget separate from the school district’s budget. The total security budget, as outlined in a motion put before the board Thursday, totals $2,440,650, but grants are expected to bring the outstanding balance to $43,891.

According to Dr Reed, the security budget, which, as described in the motion, included a planned School Safety Officer Program and building-related security costs, has previously been in the Board of Selectman's budget. Dr Reed also said the plan is to have that budget be a joint responsibility between the district and the town in the future. Whether the security budget will be in the school district’s budget or the selectman’s budget will be deliberated and decided later in the budget process by the Legislative Council and the Board of Finance, according to Thursday’s discussion.

“This is very complicated,” said Dr Reed, “and we are all going to have to work to explain this to people.”

Multiple board members shared concerns about passing the security budget Thursday, including Board of Education Vice Chair Laura Roche, who said she felt that the school board’s voice on the matter was being taken away.

The decision to submit the security package on to the other town boards was tabled with the understanding that a meeting will be set to discuss it by Friday, February 14.

“This should not be any indication that we do not support security,” Ms Hamilton said following the motion to table.

Before the board meets again to discuss the security budget, Ms Leidlein said she would seek clarification on some of the school board’s concerns from First Selectman Pat Llodra and Board of Finance Chair John Kortze.

During public participation at the start of the meeting, two speakers shared support for the 2014-15 spending plan as proposed by Dr Reed. After the board’s motion to reduce the proposal, speakers also voiced frustration at the decision by the school board to have a “zero percent increase.”

Resident Laura Terry said she anticipates further reductions to the budget proposal will be made by other boards, “so that $139,000 was very disheartening.”

Marabeth Pereira said she “wears many hats in the district,” including Hawley Elementary School PTA president, a computer lab paraeducator, and a tech liason for Hawley. She spoke to her experience with technology at Hawley, and said the PTA representatives across the district shared  support with the school board of Dr Reed’s budget, “not an additional $139,000 reduction on top of what he came forth with tonight.” Ms Pereira also shared fears of further reductions to the school board’s budget if the security budget is added to it.

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