Finance Board Digs Into School Budget Proposal
Following a public hearing with no taxpayer attendees February 16, the Board of Finance began its review of the proposed school budget expressing concerns about reductions, enrollment, and technology increases.
As approved by the Board of Education last month, the 2023-24 budget request is $85,990,974, roughly $3,856,335 or a 4.7 percent increase over the 2022-23 budget.
Finance board member Chandravir Ahuja commented that he had heard concerns about cuts to the budget from members of the public.
School Superintendent Chris Melillo, who was at the meeting, replied that he was “cognizant of the current economy.”
“I don’t want to put anyone out of work but I also don’t want the taxpayer to have to choose between putting food on the table and paying the utility bill,” said Melillo, who said he understood the financial pressures facing residents as he is running his own household facing those same pressures.
“I tried to find a happy medium, to offer the education we can but also understanding that if I walk in with a 6.8 percent increase, that’s not what I’ll walk out with,” the superintendent said.
Finance board member Sandy Roussas asked Melillo about four library paraprofessional positions that had been restored to the proposed budget, and what their elimination would have meant in terms of operations. A number of other paraprofessional positions in other areas were not restored.
Melillo justified the elimination saying there are Makerspaces within the media centers they were going to “leverage to enhance and improve the enrichment program.”
“It was addition by subtraction,” said Melillo. “The costs [are] tied to one person going to multiple skills, and there is a media specialist at each library.” Concerns centered around whether “too much was being put on the plate” of the media specialists.
“Not only were we putting more on their plate with Makerspace, but we were also taking away the support of the paraprofessionals,” said Melillo.
Melillo said the cost to add the paraprofessionals back was $56,000, and the administration was able to find offsets in other parts of the proposed budget including insurance and worker’s compensation totaling $54,000; so only $2,000 was added to that request.
Melillo said with retirements and other positions being vacated, there are enough open positions for all current employees, giving every employee a “landing spot, even if it’s not the same position.”
With the school district “already running short” on paraprofessionals, the superintendent explained that a lot of the extra classroom burden is being put on teachers, administration, and the remaining paraprofessionals who are being asked to not take breaks and work through their lunch to cover things like children’s lunch times and recesses.
Much of the remaining paraprofessional force is being redirected to assist with special education students, according to Melillo. The district is already down 13 paraprofessional positions over the past two years, and is “working in a deficit model to meet needs.”
The district will also be replacing interventionist support with math specialists, which Melillo said will help the school have “better outcomes with the work we’re doing.”
“The expectation is that with lost positions is lost outcomes, but that’s not one-to-one,” said Melillo. “We shifted our resources to where they’re most needed. Budget cuts don’t always mean you get less. If you think outside the box, you can get more.”
Ahuja expressed surprise at enrollment numbers from the district’s consultant, which forecast a drop in PreK enrollment in the upcoming school year.
“The housing market is slow, but Newtown is not reflecting that,” Ahuja said. “I’m expecting more enrollment.”
Melillo said the district has the consultant’s numbers, but the district’s own numbers are reflecting less enrollment across grades. He said post-pandemic, the consultant’s numbers have not proven to be as reliable.
“Following the pandemic, many of the kids did not come back. They’ve gone to private or home schools,” said Melillo. “Many people are working from home which gives a higher opportunity for home schooling. They’re in their homes, with no commute, and feel they can do both [work and home school].”
Roussas asked what the basis was for a 260 percent increase in the proposed materials and technology line item.
Assistant Director of Business and Finance Tanja Vadas said last year, $144,000 of that line item came from the Capital and Non-Recurring Fund. This year, the schools are not receiving that funding, but require $292,000 in Chromebooks.
“We tried to flat fund that line item,” said Melillo. “But we ran into problems with inflation around computer equipment.” Melillo said hardware and software both increased significantly, with the fees for Google Classroom nearly doubling.
“It’s the market now,” said Melillo.
The finance board had further meetings on the proposed budget on Wednesday and Thursday, and is expected to have a final one on Monday, February 27. The board will finish its review and, if the officials decide to, make possible cuts before recommending the school district and municipal proposals to the Legislative Council by March 3.
Look for follow-up reporting on the remaining finance board meetings in the March 3 print edition of The Newtown Bee and at newtownbee.com.
Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.