Final Public Hearing On Town, School Budget Requests Is March 20
UPDATE: This report was updated at 6 pm on March 19 to correct the number of questions on the upcoming budget referendum ballot.
The final public hearing on proposed 2019-20 municipal and school district budgets is slated for 7 pm on Wednesday, March 20, ahead of the Legislative Council taking up deliberations and eventually sending the spending plans for taxpayers’ endorsement or rejection to referendum April 23.
The selectmen’s request amounts to a 2.75 percent increase over the 2018-19 adopted budget and includes a $250,000 proposed increase in the Capital Roads line for continued local road improvements and maintenance. The Board of Selectmen’s budget request also includes all debt service for local capital projects, including all school district projects
The total proposed town-wide spend — following a nominal finance board amendment adding $12,000 for daytime fire apparatus drivers in Hawleyville and Dodgingtown — is now $42,207,726, representing a $1,140,759 increase over the current adopted budget.
The Board of Education unanimously approved its 2019-20 budget for $78,104,410, a roughly 2.7 percent increase from the current year’s budget. After review, the finance board moved this request unchanged from the school board.
Once final council recommendations have been made, voters at referendum will weigh in on the town and school spending proposals separately.
Voters will also be asked to authorize four capital spending authorizations: $1 million for capital roads; $2.7 million for a high school boiler / lighting replacement; a Hawley School boiler replacement and lighting protection at Sandy Hook School totaling $744,239; and $265,000 to cover most of the cost of creating four new regulation pickleball courts at Fairfield Hills.
If that final measure passes, an anonymous donor has pledged an additional $25,000 to complete the new pickleball court project.
In presenting to the council, Board of Finance Chairman James Gaston, Vice Chair Sandy Roussas, and board member Steve Hinden each took on specific roles.
Mr Gaston’s goal was to review the high points of the budget proposals and explain the nominal increase for the fire department drivers fund; Ms Roussas covered some of the thought process involved with recommendations being made; and Mr Hinden briefly reviewed an analysis he performed related to the increasing education budget and declining enrollment.
In regard to the latter point, Mr Gaston told council members that another finance board member, Ned Simpson, also produced his own analysis related to the school board budget and declining enrollment — which the finance chairman said yielded similar results.
A Plethora Of Information
Mr Gaston reviewed the various town and school managers and representatives who were called in for interviews on their pieces of the proposals and revealed that those and other staffers produced answers to nearly three-dozen individual questions posed in writing by his board.
“We received a plethora of information,” Mr Gaston said, adding that the main budget drivers, as in years past, were contractual salary and benefit increases and fixed costs.
On the school district side, he said his board was acutely interested in the proposed Director of Teaching and Learning. Mr Gaston said it was the board’s understanding that the individual would be hired mid-year.
He said he and his board questioned how the person would operate district-wide, how their proposed responsibilities compared to the district’s Assistant Superintendent job description, and if there was overlap between the two.
“The conclusion was no,” Mr Gaston said, adding that it would be a separate position with duties an assistant superintendent is not doing now.
That Director of Teaching and Learning position was originally requested for $76,000. The Board of Education then voted February 5 to move up the start of the position to earlier in the year, adding $50,966 to the proposed compensation package.
The district-wide position comes with a price tag of approximately $153,000 a year, according to the district.
Mr Gaston said both district administrators and front line educators believed the addition of a Director of Teaching & Learning would assist the district “significantly.”
“So we did not take that out,” he said. “Our budget [recommendation] approves that position.”
In closing, he told the council that Newtown’s proposed school budget increase was the second lowest in the District Reference Group or DRG that includes Newtown.
In a more brief review of the town-side budget request, Mr Gaston reviewed the creative way First Selectman Dan Rosenthal and Finance Director Robert Tait resolved to create further taxpayer savings by consolidating administrative positions and supplementing those posts with part-time or lower paid full-time support staffers.
The finance board chairman touched on the town’s recent reaffirmed S&P Bond Rating of AAA — the equivalent of a perfect credit score. Mr Gaston zeroed in on the town’s fund balance, which at 11.4 percent, “is higher than a number of Moody’s AAA rated towns.”
In reviewing the finance board’s collective — and her individual thought processes — Ms Roussas said considerations included making sure budgets maintain services and the quality of Newtown’s education system.
“Digging into the details, there was not any room to make reductions that would not directly impact students,” she said. “The budget was defended,” she added, saying administrators responded to “hundreds of questions with straight answers.”
“It was the same with the Board of Selectmen,” Ms Roussas said. “We could not point to anything without feeling arbitrary. I didn’t feel any cuts were defensible from my perspective.”
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