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Budget Hearing Draws No Residents, Finance Board Begins BOE Review



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What does it mean when the Board of Finance holds its annual public hearing on the proposed town and school district budgets — and nobody bothers to show up?

That was the scenario between 7 and 7:30 pm on February 13, as the six members of the finance board sat chatting quietly and waiting patiently for residents to voice their opinions on the proposed $122,421,535 spending plan.

Following the Pledge of Allegiance, finance Chair Sandy Roussas held the floor open in case anyone was delayed in arriving, but ended up closing the hearing and transitioning into a regular meeting during which the Board of Education and school officials presented their budget request and finance officials tendered a number of high-level questions.

The finance board’s next budget review session was set for the evening of February 20, after this edition of The Newtown Bee went to press. It was scheduled to begin reviewing municipal department requests from the police, public works, and the Edmond Town Hall board of managers.

Look for follow-up coverage of that and a scheduled February 24 session in next week’s edition, and online at newtownbee.com. Ms Roussas told the newspaper that she is planning to conclude deliberations and possibly call for a vote to finalize her board’s work on February 27.

If the finance board does conclude its budget recommendations by the end of February, the two spending proposals head for the Legislative Council, which could schedule its own public hearing — likely on March 18, according to Chairman Paul Lundquist. Upon receiving the budget at its March 4 meeting, parts will continue to be reviewed by various council committees before coming back for full deliberation and a final vote later in March.

Voters will be called to weigh in on the two separate school and municipal budgets, along with several capital bonding requests, and possible advisory questions about proposed residential developments at Fairfield Hills on Tuesday, April 28.

Following a presentation of the school district budget February 13, Ms Roussas and her board began asking questions, leading off with a query about increasing parking revenue at the high school from Christopher Gardner.

Mr Gardner observed that parking pass revenue was budgeted to increase $10,000 next fiscal year. School Board Chair Michele Embree Ku replied that the board was not proposing raising fees, just anticipating collecting more and putting them back into the district.

“It’s not an increase to students, but where fees are going,” she said. Director of Business Ron Bienkowski added that the district incurs annual expenses related to maintaining parking facilities at the high school. Over the years, a fund holding those fees has built up a balance.

So the high school administration was requested to provide added revenue and they agreed to provide $10,000 more back to the district’s bottom line, Mr Bienkowski explained. He added that once that level of total reimbursement reaches $30,000, it will stay at $30,000 with no plan to wind back.

John Madzulla wondered how the revenue was defined as accrued in the high school’s revenue line. Mr Bienkowski clarified that each year, the district takes in more than it expenses — so over time a balance accrues and increases.

“We use it for certain expenses,” he said. “We feel comfortable with the inflow of revenue, and . . . there will be enough to take care of expenses.”

On Mr Madzulla’s follow-up about how much the district takes in, Mr Bienkowski said he would return to the board at a future meeting with that figure.

Contingency Fund Options

Mr Gardner then asked how much the district has tapped a special education contingency fund that was recently established to try to mitigate unanticipated special education student arrivals or expense increases.

Dr Ku said last year, the fund’s first year of availability, $63,000 went unused.

Superintendent Lorrie Rodrigue reminded the finance board that two years ago the district ended up about $1 million short in its special ed line.

“It only takes two to three out-placements and you’re down $300,000,” Dr Rodrigue said.

Matthew Mihalcik asked if the surplus from last year went into a nonlapsing contingency account. Dr Ku replied the nonlapsing fund was established for educational use, and the $63,000 was part of that contingency fund to offset special ed increases.

She added that this year, the state established an insurance fund that could cover special ed overages. But the idea was to create a fund for Newtown to avoid future upcharges in the state premiums over time.

“The nonlapsing fund as a whole could be used for special ed,” Dr Ku said.

Referring to an entry about staffing by function, Mr Mihalcik noted a curriculum line that was previously budgeted for no staff in 2014 now was requesting funding for six educators.

Dr Ku replied that some staffing had been added for the K-6 Spanish curriculum. Mr Bienkowski tallied the six posts as being for the district music administrator, a guidance staffer, an English teacher at the elementary level, teachers for the world language Spanish program, and for the newly created Director of Teaching and Learning.

Dr Rodrigue explained that the district formerly squeezed Spanish into English classes.

“It’s always about scheduling,” she said, adding for next year, Spanish will have its own space. Reed School will have its own program in fifth grade for Spanish, the superintendent added, while sixth graders will receive a sampling of French and Spanish ahead of choosing a language as they transition to middle school.

Vice Chair Keith Alexander asked about whether the district was able to bring in special ed students from other towns, but Mr Bienkowski said no other tuition students are currently coming in. He said a TAP program “has tuition coming in to the line items to [offset] expenses.”

However, Dr Rodrigue said the TAP initiative is not a special education program. TAP (The Afternoon Program) is an alternative high school option for students who have a variety of learning profiles, backgrounds, and goals.

She did acknowledge that the district was looking at regional programs across western Connecticut to reduce out-of-district expenses, but none worked out.

Reductions In Requests

Ms Roussas then asked school officials to speak to reductions from principal requests, which originally hit the budget plan at $80 million and were reduced by $1.87 million.

Dr Rodrigue said she worked closely with administrators and principals looking at class size, gaps, lack of equity, and where enrollment is decreasing at the high school.

“We took out an English teacher and it didn’t move the needle on class size at all,” she said. The superintendent said she and the school board have to look at critical needs and demand data to support meaningful requests tied to meaningful goals.

“We scrubbed down to what was really needed,” Dr Rodrigue said. “Rather than throwing money at new things, let’s use what is working.”

Ms Roussas inquired about the success of the district’s six-day elementary scheduling. Dr Rodrigue replied that giving the language program its own space opens up room for science over a six-day schedule.

“Also you lose instructional time in a five-day schedule,” she said, adding that teaching and learning is far more fluid because students don’t lose Monday holidays.

Ms Roussas concluded her questioning asking about any grants sunsetting that will now revert to budget. Dr Ku said all grants were listed in the budget document, including some that are pending.

“There are over $600,000 in grants that have sunsetted including those supplementing elementary counselors and social workers,” she said, adding that a grant-funded Director of Guidance was moved to an administrator post.

She said new grants are for new things — post traumatic initiatives, mental health — and that if the district opts to apply for grants, the board needs to look at any long-term cost of shifting those expenses to the operating budget after grants sunset.

Responding to a question from Ned Simpson about language options, Dr Rodrigue said the district has eliminated Mandarin because it was difficult to keep teachers who came from other countries.

“We’d have to go find new ones, and it was a huge process,” she said, adding that housing, expenses, and transportation were chronic challenges with those instructors.

As an alternative, the superintendent said, “We’re looking at virtual high school for certain languages.”

Newtown’s Board of Finance, from left, Ned Simpson, Chris Gardner, Chair Sandy Roussas, Vice Chair Keith Alexander, John Madzula II, and Matthew Mihalcik, and First Selectman Dan Rosenthal wait for residents to appear at a scheduled public hearing on the proposed 2020-21 budget February 13 at the Municipal Center, but nobody came. This marked the first such hearing in recent memory that drew no resident participation. —Bee Photo, Voket
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