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Council Restores School Security Positions



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Reacting to information Legislative Council members apparently received during a closed session, a recommendation to eliminate two armed school security officers (SSOs) from the 2016-17 budget recommendation was rejected as elected leaders began final deliberations on next year's school and municipal spending plans on March 30.Police Commission ConcernsSidewalks And Technology

The original recommendation, which came out of a council subcommittee, would have pared down the number of SSOs at Newtown High School and the newly occupied Sandy Hook Elementary School from two to one per building beginning in the fall. But a motion by Councilman Neil Chaudhary that was emphatically seconded by colleague Dan Honan got the ball rolling by rejecting the SSO cutback at Sandy Hook School.

That proposal was met by freshman council member Judit DeStefano's suggested amendment to extend that rejection to the second officer's position at the high school. She explained her request by saying, "I trust our police chief and superintendent… and want to honor their recommendations." Affirming her belief that the positions were important and not frivolous spending, the freshman council member reminded her colleagues that they previously heard opposition to the removal of those officers from a lot of community members on the issue, which also supported her amendment.

Mr Honan defended the main motion and referred to Police Chief James Viadero and school security officials, saying, "We should listen to the people we pay - keep it in the budget."

Council Vice Chairman Paul Lundquist agreed.

"I feel strongly it's not the right time to reduce security," he said adding he would support the amendment that would result in keeping both previously requested reductions.

Councilman Chris Eide also asserted, "I don't think the timing is right on this."

Councilman Ryan Knapp expressed concern that a public perception that Newtown schools are facing an increased risk, but affirmed through data that it is not the case. He agreed, however, that a robust security presence in local schools make most staff and visitors feel safer returning the school.

"We just don't want a perception that Newtown is not a safe place - we're the fourth safest town in the state by many metrics," Mr Knapp said.

Councilman George Ferguson added, "When we put security in place post 12/14 it was to help make school community feel safer coming back to school."

He said that part of the community's healing process is to "realize we are in a safe place," and while a lot of public discussion about Newtown involves a "heightened debate around the gun issue," Mr Ferguson agreed with Mr Knapp that "there is not a perceived violence threat."

Putting her gavel aside, Council Chair Mary Ann Jacob, herself a Sandy Hook School staffer, said, "I don't support making a change at Sandy Hook, but we'll take the recommendations in the motion and vote."

On a role call vote, the amendment passed on a 7-5 split, before the main motion passed 11- 1.

Council members then continued their review of Board of Finance recommendations proposing a school district budget of $73,865,065, providing a 3.18 percent increase, and a municipal budget of $41,036,679, representing a 2.23 percent increase.

The next order of business was also police related, and brought Police Commission Chair Joel Faxon and Vice Chair Brian Budd to the microphone, defending and requesting a reinstatement of $14,000 to the police department's contractual services request. That requested reduction originated from the Board of Finance and was presented as targeting the Police Commission's only requested expenditure, which is typically used for traffic engineering consulting, if needed.

The Police Commission is Newtown's official traffic authority, and as such, is charged with addressing traffic concerns when presented either by the public or the police department or other public safety agency. Finance board Chairman James Gaston, Sr, was on hand to explain the action. He said the motion was strategic, and suggested leaving $1,000 in the detail line for traffic engineering if a situation came up where added money had to be transferred in to cover any costs in the 2016-17 fiscal cycle.

First Selectman Pat Llodra spoke up saying while the finance board and council are authorized to recommend reductions to line items, a suggested target of the police commission's consulting budget was diving too deep into the details.

"The commission's funding represents budget detail," the first selectman said. "The line item is contractual services. If you don't restore, it doesn't mean there won't be a traffic study if needed. Anything contracted by the police department or Police Commission comes from that line. If any reduction is made, the chief needs to decide how to allocate the remaining money for the contracts needed - the chief needs to sit down with the commission and figure it out."

Mr Gaston said the finance board examined a five-year span of that detail and noticed very little expenditure until last year, when that detail went more than 100 percent over budget. Mr Faxon defended the spending saying it included an outstanding invoice that was paid in the 2016 fiscal cycle, but was incurred in 2015.

Mr Ferguson asked the commissioners to address a rumor that a new traffic study at the Main Street flagpole was going to be commissioned using the funds in question.

Mr Faxon replied that the commission proposed "no earmarking of that money at this time."

While he said the commission was looking at issues on Pearl Street, a new flagpole study might be warranted since he said there have been many changes at that five-way intersection in recent years, and urged the council to not be "penny wise and pound foolish," and to "err on the side of safety" by restoring $14,000 to police contractual services.

The next point of discussion was a proposed reduction to the Sandy Hook Organization for Prosperity (SHOP) made by the council's Finance and Administration Committee. The funding is earmarked for sidewalk repair and maintenance that is handled for the town by the local business support nonprofit.

Mr Knapp, who made the committee motion, explained that while he personally tries to support SHOP and the Sandy Hook business community, constituents see the SHOP allocation as "subsidizing private businesses."

"It's not a practice we should be in long term," Mr Knapp said, adding that the motion was to hold the SHOP request line flat. "Funding SHOP to do sidewalk repairs should be handled by public works."

Mrs Llodra explained that when it comes to maintenance projects, the town doesn't simply hand over requested funds.

"They invoice us," she explained, saying SHOP is one of three organizations in town that do some of their own work, which is done under approved bid criteria.

"There is a benefit for the businesses to take ownership for the area," Mrs Llodra said, "to make sure areas are as attractive and well-maintained as possible."

Town Technology Director Al Miles was next, spending about 15 minutes reviewing his department's continuing work, addressing ongoing maintenance and improvements to various technology systems and initiatives. He also responded to several questions, correlating budget requests to several line items including data storage and planned work to create more robust and secure Internet and cloud-based connections for town government.

The final budget point involved Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, and district Business Manager Ron Bienkowski, who conducted a presentation regarding excess cost grants. The presentation responded to questions about per pupil spending costs that drive the reimbursement amount; the district's five-year reimbursement history; and likely reimbursement scenarios with any Sandy Hook event-related grants identified.

Dr Erardi explained that he has been working with State Senator Tony Hwang on a unique piece of legislation that would reformulate state reimbursements to the district - particularly for costly special education services.

The superintendent told the council that if the legislative proposal is eventually enacted as outlined, the town could receive added reimbursements retroactive to the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years totaling about $175,000. That funding would be delivered in April of 2017.

The council's next planned budget session is Wednesday, April 6.

Newtown's Legislative Council, pictured here during a March 23 meeting, began its final series of budget recommendation deliberations this week by first reviewing requests and matters of school security in a closed executive session. The council also voted in its March 30 session to reject an earlier recommendation that would remove an armed school security officer (SSO) from Sandy Hook and Newtown High School in the fall. (Bee Photo, Voket)

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