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School Board Begins Inspection Of 2010-2011 Superintendent's Budget



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School Board Begins Inspection Of 2010-2011 Superintendent’s Budget

By Eliza Hallabeck

The Board of Education began its first deliberation on the proposed 2010-2011 superintendent’s budget on Tuesday, February 2, at the Newtown Municipal Center.

The meeting came a week after Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson presented the proposed 2010-2011 superintendent’s budget to a crowd in Newtown High School’s Lecture Hall.

Contained within the proposed budget are 19 positions cuts across the district, 17 of which are positions from the kindergarten through middle school levels, and the elimination of the director of transportation position. The budget also adds eight positions at the high school level, leaving the district with a net reduction of 11 positions.

After school programs at Reed Intermediate School and Newtown Middle School, except those that are self-supporting, are also proposed for elimination within the budget.

The proposed budget reflects a 4.94 percent increase over last year, for a total of $66,023,381.

Members of the public, school district students, staff and faculty filled the Newtown Municipal Center’s meeting room and spilled out into the hallway for Tuesday’s meeting.

“This is a very long process,” said school board Chair Lillian Bittman, “which is why the vote everyone is familiar with does not happen until April.”

After listening for nearly two hours as members of the public expressed concerns about budget reductions, the school board began its review of the 2010-2011 budget by asking district principals questions concerning their areas in the budget.

Newtown High School Principal Charles Dumais began the night’s presentations and said the combination of rising graduation requirements and an anticipated increase of students next year means extra teaching positions are needed to meet class size expectations.

For the last three years, Mr Dumais said, NHS has been number one in its District Reference Group (DRG), a group of 21 towns determined to be similar by the state, but not a good sort of number one.

“Number one as in the greatest number of students per teacher,” Mr Dumais continued.

School board Vice Chair Kathy Fetchick reminded Mr Dumais that in 2008 the board heard there were enough staff members at the school for the number of students, and added, “I’m still having trouble with your request for additional staff.”

In response to a question from Ms Fetchick, Mr Dumais said asking current staff to teach extra courses would not be effective.

“I think it would be extremely taxing to have people teach additional classes,” said Mr Dumais. “So we try to do that as little as we can.”

While school board member David Nanavaty said he understood the need for a science teacher, he too was having trouble understanding the request for more teachers.

Mr Dumais said adding extra space from the Newtown High School expansion and renovation project next year will not bring down class sizes without an increase of teachers.

“Having more space does not change the class sizes,” Mr Dumais said. “Having more space for us in terms of moving forward will ease up class scheduling.”

Newtown Middle School

When asked by Mr Nanavaty what cut proposed in the 2010-2011 budget she could have back, NMS Principal Diane Sherlock said, “The position that I would like put back in, I would like them all back in, that goes without saying, but the one I would say is the Family and Consumer Science Program.”

Positions proposed in the budget for elimination at NMS are a part-time art teacher, a Spanish teacher, the Family and Consumer Science teacher and program, the Project Adventure assistant, the library media associate, and coaching and activities salaries.

School board member William Hart asked Ms Sherlock if she believed a pay-to-play program would be possible at the middle school, as an alternative to the proposed after school program reductions.

“Would it be difficult? Yes,” said Ms Sherlock. “Would we do it? Yes. It would certainly be better than having none of our students be able to participate, but I would rather do it in a way that would allow all of our students to participate.”

Ms Sherlock said because of parents in the district the school is able to send all eighth grade students on a trip to Washington, D.C., each year, and one factor of that are parents that send in double payments for students who may not be able to attend.

Reed School

Positions proposed for elimination at Reed Intermediate School are a part-time art teacher, one music teacher, two physical education teachers, the part-time library media associate, and coaching and salary fees. Reed Principal Sharon Epple, when asked the same question proposed to Ms Sherlock by Mr Nanavaty, said if she could bring back just one of those positions, she would bring back a physical education teacher.

“The elimination of a physical education teacher and the Project Adventure teacher really cuts our department in half,” said Dr Epple to the board.

While she did not want to elaborate, she said she has ideas she needs to run by members of Reed staff that may save enough money to keep the library media associate and the art teacher positions.

Elementary Schools

During Hawley Elementary School Principal Jo-Anne Peter’s presentation, school board Chair Lillian Bittman asked if it would be possible to have parents volunteer in place of education assistants.

Hawley School positions proposed for elimination in the budget are one first grade teacher and an educational assistant.

When Middle Gate Elementary School Principal Judith Liestman spoke to the board, she said education assistants in the schools are the best buy in the district. Middle Gate has one educational assistant position proposed for elimination in the 2010-2011 budget.

“We get a lot of good work,” said Ms Liestman, “and they are really exceptional.”

Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Donna Pagé said one of the reductions proposed in the budget for Sandy Hook School was due to enrollment. One second grade teacher and a part-time kindergarten teacher are proposed eliminations at the school.

Head O’ Meadow Principal William Bircher noted that the budget would need to be increased by a large amount in order to bring the school district to where it was ten years ago. Positions proposed for elimination at Head O’ Meadow are one first grade teacher, one second grade teacher, and three educational assistants.

“If I could have anything this year,” Mr Bircher said, “I would have you find some position for these people somehow. They are quality people.”

Public Participation

While some parents said they were there on behalf of their children, some students did attend the Board of Education’s meeting on Tuesday to voice their concerns with the district’s proposed budget.

“I have a lot of reasons why we shouldn’t be talking about a budget cut,” said Newtown Middle School student Michael Eisner, who said he had 75 signatures from his fellow middle school students.

Middle School student Max Galassi said the school has a great drama program that is free.

“I’d just like to say some kids cannot afford programs that are not supported by the school,” Max said.

NMS French teacher Nancy Maxwell told the board she is deeply concerned about the school system. Points for her concern include the middle school’s gifted program, GATES, “now almost nonexistent,” the proposed elimination of a Spanish teacher at NMS, the proposed elimination of the middle school library media associate, and the reduction of the Project Adventure assistant.

NMS library/media specialist Jeanne Bugay said she was at the meeting because her full-time library assistant position was proposed for elimination.

“The door to wanting to read is not opened by a remote control,” said Ms Bugay, “but by interactions and conversations with each student. How am I able to do that while 42 kids are bustling about during learning lab? I have an assistant who can troubleshoot the myriad of questions that arise and manage the circulation desk.”

Resident Sandy Doski said she was at the board meeting to express concern over the possible elimination of the Reed Intermediate School library media associate. The library media staff at Reed, including the associate, Michelle Robinson, helped her son to become one of the top readers in his class, she said.

CIP Decision Postponed

After listening to the principals, the school board spent time discussing its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). As approved by the Board of Ed during its meeting on January 12, $350,000 in the 2010-2011, or the first year, of the CIP is proposed for design fees of the third phase of a Hawley Elementary School boiler and electrical project. A similar project is scheduled for the middle school in the fourth year of the project, as approved.

However, new information on air quality at NMS prompted the board to look into the CIP, but no decision was reached Tuesday night. Board member Debbie Leidlein said she wanted more time to look at all information involved in the decision. Both school board members Richard Gaines and David Nanavaty said they felt the board had done its due diligence concerning the air quality report.

“I feel there is so much different information,” said Ms Leidlein, “and some of the information does not agree with one another. I just want to make sure I understand.”

Mr Gaines made a motion to reapprove the CIP as approved by the board in January, and Mr Hart seconded the motion. Mr Gaines, Mr Hart, and board member Christopher Lagana voted Yes on the motion, while Mr Nanavaty, Ms Leidlein, school board Vice Chair Kathy Fetchick, and Chair Lillian Bittman voted No.

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