Saying she was presenting a spending plan that the Board of Education believes “helps us meet our budget goals,” which in part, plan “for the future needs of the Newtown public school system,” board Chair Debbie Leidlein reviewed a number of points in the proposal that will face further Board of Finance deliberation in the coming days.
On Thursday, February 27, the finance board was set to take up the issue of school security, and was planning to return to a comprehensive discussion on the school board’s budget proposal March 6.
As she began her presentation, Ms Leidlein also said that a new budget goal for the coming year would be to further explore how the district and town could collaborate or merge various functions to achieve further taxpayer savings.
Using a projected presentation, the school board chair first detailed areas of increased and decreased spending to deliver to the finance board a $71,045,304 request she said represents a zero increase over the current year.
Ms Leidlein detailed several key areas where the school board reduced expenses and other areas that demanded increases.
Among the reductions in the proposal for next year were:
*$251,871 in purchased property services
*$53,745 in purchased professional services
*$52,222 in supplies
Unspecified reductions that were voted upon and left to the board after the budget receives eventual public approval will total $110,830. Areas where the school board increased spending included:
*$242,410 for other purchased services
*$214,222 in benefit costs
*$8,276 in salaries
The school board chair noted that the recommended contribution increase to maintain a stable fund balance in the town’s self-insured health care plan is 3.2 percent or $245,858. Increases for other purchased services include: contracted services at $64,505; transportation services at $155,611; out of district special education tuition at $26,532; and a total increase of $3,594 for property and equipment, including $53,341 for technology equipment.
Turning to enrollment, Ms Leidlein said the district is projecting 167 fewer students in the coming year, which will reflect in a proportional reduction in staffing, particularly at the elementary level. She said the board began considering staff reductions in the current school year by not filling open positions at all but two of the district’s school.
She said an added five positions in the proposed budget will be reduced in the elementary area, three in the Reed School, four teachers at the middle school, and an art position at the high school. Ms Leidlein said taking into account the fractional adjustments and positions from the current year that will remain unfilled, the district has planned to eliminate just over 20 positions.
Three part-time clerical and two custodial positions will also be reduced in the spending plan. One area that will see increases in hiring will be in special education services, with a full-time noncertified position at the middle school, a transitional teacher and job coaching position at the high school being added.
18 Staff Reductions
Ms Leidlein said planned staff adjustments represent a net reduction of 18.34 certified positions with estimated savings reflected in the proposed budget of $1,221,436. The district also budgeted $325,000 from staff turnover totaling an overall $1,546,000 in workforce savings which will, in part, offset increased expenses in other parts of the budget request.
Reviewing some of the main drivers for increases, Ms Leidlein pointed to special ed costs, which make up 12 percent of the budget and that have been increasing. She also briefly touched upon state mandates that have required local spending without corresponding funding from the state to address Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, new statewide testing, student success plans, school climate, and security.
Finance officials were slated to take up proposed security funding in a meeting on February 27, just after the print edition of The Bee went to press.
Ms Leidlein said that overall, costs in public schools have increased on average at three percent per year for the last five years, or 15 percent. She also noted that the Educational Cost Sharing Program has maintained level funding, however, and local funding has had to cover the difference between increasing costs and level state funding.
The school board chair also spent a few minutes focusing on the number of administrative hours the district expects to devote to mandated professional development for teachers.
In the subsequent hour, Ms Leidlein and Interim School Superintendent John Reed responded to questions from the finance board that commenced with Michael Portnoy, who asked about how the district was planning to move its technology upgrades forward.
Ms Leidlein responded that new mandated standardized testing is required to be done on computers, so the district has to be certain it is appropriately equipped. As a result, the district is devoted to maintaining a plan to address technology, particularly hardware turnover, with level spending.
She also said that the district is updating policies for permitting students to bring their own technology devices to school, and that the district has the technology to ensure there is effective interface between personal and school systems.
Close Two Schools?
Mr Portnoy then pointed to a projected 700-student decrease in elementary population since 2007, and questioned if the school board was still considering the closing of one, or even possibly two elementary schools.
Ms Leidlein confirmed that both a school enrollment and facilities studies were included in the proposed budget. She said that while there have been dramatic decreases in enrollment, she told the finance board that many of the rooms and spaces that developed as student enrollment dropped are being used for one-on-one counseling, extra help sessions, and some other needs tied to support and recovery from the 12/14 tragedy.
Mr Portnoy then noted the state has initiated a temporary rollback on mandates for the implementation of Common Core standards and teacher evaluations. But Ms Leidlein countered that Newtown is moving forward with implementation of those guidelines in the current and coming year.
Finance board Chairman John Kortze asked the district leaders if they could quantify the costs for implementing these two mandates, and Ms Leidlein said that it was difficult. She said as administrators take on new duties under the mandates, some of their responsibilities will transfer to other staff generating anticipated cost increases.
Prior to adjourning, Dr Reed briefly reviewed trends in special education services and their anticipated affect on the 2014-15 budget request. Following the meeting, Ms Leidlein told The Bee that her board delivered on a zero-increase budget proposal as requested by town officials and taxpayers, and that the district is responding to the rapid decline in student enrollment by making aggressive reductions in corresponding staff.
She asked that taxpayers take into consideration the unknowns related to post-12/14 recovery and support, which is being required by a large number of students in the district, and said she is counting on parents and taxpayers to come out and support the request at referendum.
The finance board plans to return with additional questions for school officials March 6, with possible final deliberations and adoption March 12.
The Board of Finance also scheduled an extra date for additional deliberations and final action, if needed, on March 13.
Both proposals then move to the Legislative Council with an overall presentation March 19, with a council public hearing slated for March 26. Council deliberations begin and could conclude April 2 with a motion to send the final school and town requests to voters, although a second night for possible deliberation and action has been reserved for April 9 if needed.
The times and location of council budget sessions have yet to be determined, and all proposed dates and times are subject to change, officials said. Voters will have the opportunity to consider the separate school and town proposals at referendum Tuesday, April 22.