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Low Public Input At BOE Budget Hearing



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UPDATE (Friday, February 1, 2019, 2:40 pm): This story has been updated to reflect the NHS ice hockey program would be more equitably funded, not fully funded, if the proposed pay to participate changes are instituted.

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No members of the public spoke about the proposed 2019-20 school district spending plan during the public hearing portion of the Board of Education’s January 30 meeting.

The meeting was rescheduled from January 29 due to the weather. When the public hearing on the budget was announced at the meeting, Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku still offered time for the public to speak. The audience was sparsely populated by four district staff members and a member of the Legislative Council, until one member of the public arrived later in the meeting and spoke during public participation.

As presented at the school board’s January 15 meeting, the superintendent’s proposed 2019-20 budget of $78,108,940 is a 2.7 percent increase from the current year’s budget. The Board of Education has been continuing to review the spending proposal before voting on its budget at a scheduled February 5 meeting. The school board’s approved budget will then go before the Board of Finance and Legislative Council for review.

Since January 15, the school board has taken a closer look at the proposed budgets for the elementary schools, Reed Intermediate School, Newtown Middle School, Newtown High School, technology, curriculum, continuing education, plant operations and maintenance, benefits, general services, transportation, special education, pupil personnel, and health.

So far, budget deliberations have included looking at a proposed new district-level director of teaching and learning, student achievement, and district efforts to create a “more robust and unique behavioral program,” as described by Director of Pupil Services Deborah Petersen at the board’s January 17 meeting.

Before the board’s next meeting, Board of Education Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites requested at the January 30 meeting more information from Ms Petersen regarding complaints made at the state level over the last few years — Ms Petersen said complaints have decreased over the last few years — and about how special education departments are structured in other districts.

Many other topics have been taken up throughout the budget meetings as the board inspected the different areas of the spending proposal.

After reiterating she believes the 2019-20 spending plan is a “reasonable budget proposal,” Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue made some comments on the budget at the January 30 meeting.

Later, Dr Rodrigue said the majority of the 2019-20 budget is made up of increasing wages and other yearly “out of our control” increases.

“Beyond that, I think this budget does so much more,” Dr Rodrigue said. “It hosts additions to the budget — which include paraprofessional hours to help support our students not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well and a reading interventionist, [which] will help implement strategies to help continue support of our struggling readers at the elementary level.”

Continuing, Dr Rodrigue said the budget also includes additional support for psychology at Reed to support “unexpected needs,” continuing support of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs, and “action steps” in response to a 2018 special education self-study. Dr Rodrigue also said she expects the special education action steps will be presented to the school board within the next two weeks.

“We really need to focus on teaching and learning and student performance,” said Dr Rodrigue, “particularly through the use of data analysis. I only hope there is a level of trust that I would not ask for anything that I don’t feel is really critical and necessary for Newtown students.”

Responding to board member questions, district financial analyst Tanja Vadas and Director of Business Ron Bienkowski both spoke to the board’s recent approval to amend its contract with All-Star Transportation to allow the remaining diesel buses in the company’s Newtown fleet to be replaced with propane buses in the third year of the district’s contract with the company, 2019-2020, rather than the fourth year. The school board approved that action in October. While propane is less efficient per mile than diesel, it is also about 30 to 50 percent less costly, according to Ms Vadas.

“Overall, we are saving money by going to propane,” said Mr Bienkowski.

Board members later asked NHS Principal Dr Kimberly Longobucco and District Athletic Director Matt Memoli about proposed changes to the high school’s pay to participate fees. After a sports self-study was conducted, Mr Memoli presented changes at the board’s November 6 meeting, including changing the district’s pay to participate fees to be $160 per sport with a family cap of $450, except ice hockey, which would have a recommended $250 pay to participate fee and same family cap of $450. Ice hockey, Mr Memoli said at the time, would be the district’s most expensive sport per player, and changing the pay to participate fees would allow it to be more equitablyunded by the district. The pay to participate fees are currently tiered between $80 and $160.

Board member Dan Delia expressed concern at the January 30 meeting with burdening parents. After he asked if there was another way to fund the proposal, Mr Bienkowski indicated that without changing the pay to participate fees, making the same funding changes for sports would mean increasing the school district’s budget, which is predominately funded by taxes.

District parent Dennis Brestovansky, who was not deterred by the cold temperatures of January 30, offered his support of the proposed pay to participate changes during the public participation portion of the evening. Mr Brestovansky spoke from his experience with the Newtown Ice Hockey Booster Club and participating with the sports self-study.

“I think the plan does a lot to create equity between the different programs at the high school,” said Mr Brestovansky, “and it is doing so at no cost increase to the Board of Education, it’s budget, or taxpayers in general... The way it does that is more effectively using the pay to participate structure.”

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