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BOE Hears From Members Of The Public And Interim Superintendent On Budget



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A handful of people spoke at the public hearing on the 2018-19 Superintendent's Requested Operational Budget Plan at the Board of Education's budget workshop on January 30.Funding For Sports And ActivitiesNHS Marching Band ExpensesTransportation

With the Board of Education slated to adopt its budget on Thursday, February 1, at a 7:30 pm meeting at the Newtown Municipal Center, the January 30 meeting was the last budget workshop before the scheduled decision on the budget.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue presented her proposed budget to the Board of Education at its first budget workshop meeting on January 9. As presented, the Superintendent's Requested Operational Budget Plan is $75,990,687, or a 2.22 percent increase over the current fiscal year. After the school board adopts its budget, it will go before the Board of Finance and Legislative Council for review before going to referendum. Since the start of its budget workshop meetings, the school board has reviewed different aspects of the proposed spending plan.

Lynn Edwards was the first to speak for the public hearing. She asked the school board to continue its commitment to support social and emotional learning, and she questioned the decision to decrease teaching positions at Newtown High School.

Sharing that he was in attendance to offer data from his experience with the Newtown Ice Hockey Booster Club, Dennis Brestovansky said he heard from a number of sources that the school board was looking at information about funding sports programs. He shared costs associated with the hockey program.

Saying he was not speaking as a member of the Legislative Council, Phil Carroll compared the current transportation system to the 1998-99 school year, when he shared there were roughly 4,500 students transported with 24 full-size buses, nine mini-buses, and two vans, including special education students. He asked the board to reconsider going back to its system from 2016-17 until problems with the current system can be fixed.

"Now we have over 50 buses, and we are having a problem," said Mr Carroll. "I'm not certain if this is just incompetence or they don't know how to route a bus."

Julia Conlin shared her support for the district's Spanish immersion program and funding for security personnel, and she asked the board to "flesh out" proposed staff reductions.

Michelle Pranger echoed the concern for staff reductions, saying as an educator she knows it is hard to replace teachers once they are removed.

"I think the answer is trying to spend money wiser," Ms Pranger said, adding that the board should be offering more support staff for young grade levels to help students before the needs are greater.

After the public hearing, Dr Rodrigue offered answers for questions that have come up in previous budget workshop meetings. District Athletic Director Matt Memoli, Director of Visual and Performing Arts Michelle Hiscavich, Director of Facilities Gino Faiella, and Director of Technology Carmella Amodeo all offered answers to some of the board's lingering budget questions.

School board members asked questions around funding for sports programs, and funding for activities was later brought up. Speaking to the distribution of funds for sports programs, Mr Memoli said the district provides funds that support needs for participation in competitions and practices for Newtown's sports programs, as well as items that "we want back." Items that students keep are not funded.

For instance, he said, football has between 90 and 100 students who participate each year, and those students use helmets, shoulder pads, and other equipment that are given back to the athletic department after the season.

"That's about $400 a kid for equipment," he said, adding that all of that equipment is returned and cleaned.

According to the discussion, sports programs also have a range of participation rates; each sport has different associated costs.

"To try to fund sports equally in high school will never happen, because how much each sport costs is so different," said Mr Memoli.

He added later he would like to fund hockey more.

"If I could, absolutely, I would love to fund ice time... It's something that if I had the funds to do it, if I was sitting with a surplus at the end of the year - which last year I definitely was not - it would definitely go to something like that to try to decrease the cost per pupil," said Mr Memoli.

Mr Brestovansky spoke again for the final public participation portion of the meeting, and he suggested having the district fund students in sports or activities that cannot afford to participate, rather than have the parent organizations raise funds for students. Doing that, he said, would alleviate the pressure that can arise when some students play more than others.

Following up on a question about expenses for the NHS Marching Band & Guard and related programs, Ms Hiscavich explained that families pay between $400 and $600 per student to participate, depending on the program and season. On top of the participation costs, she said the NHS Band & Guard Parents Corps works to raise roughly $120,000 a year to fund costs associated with competitions, transportation, and more. The band does receive some money to help cover the cost of transportation, she said. If a student cannot afford to participate, Ms Hiscavich said they figure out a way to help that student, but she said they do not know how many students do not participate because they do not want to say they cannot afford it.

When asked if further funding would help, Ms Hiscavich said funding stipends for staff, among other things, would be a help.

Board Chair Michelle Ku said the board can look at creating a philosophy or guideline to follow in terms of funding sports or activities. Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites said it would be a good discussion for after budget season. Establishing protocols for how programs are funded can take years, according to district Business Director Ron Bienkowski.

Also at the meeting, Dr Rodrigue shared more information about possible transportation options for the 2018-19 school year. The Board of Education voted last June to change to this year's two-tier bus system, which allowed later school start times at NHS and Newtown Middle School. The district's Transportation Task Force reconvened last month to review possible improvements for school start times and transportation next school year.

At the school board's meeting on January 23, Dr Rodrigue explained two transportation scenarios that would eliminate the current shuttle system by having a dedicated fleet of buses solely used to transport Reed students. One option would add nine buses to the fleet with the two-tier system, and it is estimated to cost $500,000. Another option, which would utilize 20 additional buses and a three-tier system with Reed on its own tier, is estimated to cost $1,188,439, according to Dr Rodrigue's presentation.

Dr Rodrigue also shared that changing to a three-tier system, like the district had last year, would not work with having the high school and middle school arrive at school later, like this year.

"It just doesn't work," said Dr Rodrigue. "So someone has to start early again, or it pushes the elementary later [to get home]."

The 2017-18 Superintendent's Requested Operational Budget Plan, Dr Rodrigue said on January 30, does not have an increase for transportation spending, because the task force has been looking at no-cost "tweaks" to the current system. Dr Rodrigue said she is hopeful the task force will present its findings to the board in March.

In reaction to questions regarding the cost of diesel, gas, and propane buses, Mr Bienkowski presented a cost analysis showing the plan to replace 13 older diesel buses with propane buses for next year, reviewing the cost in miles of the 13 buses if they were propane or diesel buses. According to Mr Bienkowski, savings range depending on the contracted cost of propane and diesel, which will be decided in the coming months. Switching the 13 vehicles to be propane buses would save the district between roughly $2,000 and $11,000, depending on the cost of fuel. For the 2017-18 budget year, the board approved replacing 25 percent of its fleet with propane-powered vehicles to have a full propane fleet within four budget years, according to the operational plan.

"I'm convinced propane is the way to go at this point, and it reduces our carbon footprint," said Mr Bienkowski.

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