The majority of the 20 residents who participated in the Board of Finance public hearing ahead of 2014-15 budget deliberations February 20 either asked officials to hold the line on the zero increase requested by the Board of Education, or to restore the $139,000 reduction made by the school board members before endorsing the final budget request.
Among the few other residents offering opinions on the district’s budget request was Stephen Rosenblatt of Watkins Drive, who argued that although the budget request represented a net-zero increase, residents are “still paying the same for less.” He was referring to the measurable decline in student population in recent years versus the upward trend in budget requests.
Mr Rosenblatt pointed out that the state allows for reductions in the school budget tied to declining enrollment.
A neighbor, Tony Onorato, also of Watkins Drive, asked about a proposal by the school board to establish a surplus fund under a new state statute. Finance board Chairman John Kortze replied that a proposal to permit the local district to establish a surplus fund for capital and nonrecurring expenses has been drafted. Mr Onorato replied that he believes establishing an unchecked surplus fund is “a big mistake.”
Karyn Holden told the finance board that she has a child at Sandy Hook School and a second child who will enter kindergarten in September. Ms Holden thanked Interim Superintendent John Reed for bringing in a “conservative and responsive budget” request, and asked that it be moved to the Legislative Council with no further reductions.
Her sentiment was echoed by many of the other parents and taxpayers who came to the hearing, including PTA representatives from Middle Gate and Sandy Hook Elementary and the middle school
Resident John Masotta of Grand Place told finance officials he is an engineer, and requested officials restore Dr Reed’s original budget request and devote it to enhancing technology in the schools.
Jennifer Belcolore-Arguello of Jeremiah Road reminded residents that the district budget is not only an investment in Newtown’s children, but in improving local schools, which have a direct impact on all taxpayers’ property values.
Janet Ziperstein of Charter Ridge Drive said she has three children in the local school system, and requested no further cuts to the district budget.
“We don’t want to be in a position to have to fix things when the Band-Aids fall off,” she said.
Laura Terry of Robin Hill Road expressed concern about the newly split or bifurcated budget referendum, which she believes is already hurting the town by pitting school proponents against budget opponents in the voting booth.
“Don’t try to squeeze us into a minimum budget requirement or other benchmark,” Ms Terry said.
Neighbor George Ann Manfredonia, also of Charter Ridge Drive, spoke on behalf of the Sandy Hook PTA (supporting the zero-increase proposal) and as a taxpayer. She called Dr Reed’s proposal “fair — not extravagant,” and “realistic.”
Erin Masotta of Grand Place identified herself as a school counselor, and expressed concern about the budget in relation to services it underwrites for students who will continue to be affected by the 12/14 tragedy. She cautioned finance officials that the need to provide support for those students will continue “for many years to come,” while asking for no further reductions.
Ms Masotta also asked that all future school security costs be relegated to the municipal side of this and future budgets.
Daniel Krauss of Beechwood Drive asked the finance board to restore the $139,000 in reductions — also referring to the need to enhance district technology.
One of the final speakers at the public hearing was Okan Akbas of Tunnel Road, who served on a parent budget advisory board with Dr Reed. Mr Akbas said he has also observed a conflict between the different segments of the community regarding the school budget proposals.
He told finance officials that he hopes to see a district budget that he can afford, while at the same time stating that he “doesn’t see any fat in this [district] budget.” Mr Akbas observed that Newtown is in the bottom 25 towns in the state in cost per pupil but is in the top 30 related to student performance, and that he does not want to see further reductions to the proposal by the finance board.
The hearing concluded in approximately one hour after which the finance board received a brief overview of points in the selectmen’s budget request by First Selectman Pat Llodra and Finance Director Robert Tait. The finance board was scheduled to take up the school district budget Monday, February 24, and will return to deliberating the municipal budget on Thursday, February 27.