Major Decisions, Intense Discussions At Board Of Education Budget Meeting
The Board of Education convened January 30 for a meeting that turned into a lengthy consideration of the overall budget for Newtown Public Schools. The meeting served as the culmination for the extensive budget preparation process, which over the course of the last few weeks has consumed many hours through presentation, deliberation, and questioning.
On the agenda was not only the ultimate approval of the budget itself, but also the final opportunity for BOE members and the public to make comments or suggestions, as well as amendments that might be necessary before the process moves forward to the Board of Finance and ultimately the Legislative Council.
Indeed, the majority of the meeting was engrossed with this amendment process, as board members called upon school administrators to testify before the board with regard to various requests that were not originally included in their first budget proposal, but that were for various reasons deemed essential for the continued well-being and integrity of the educational institutions that they represent.
In the absence of any preliminary comments on the part of members of the public, board member Donald Ramsey initiated the amendment process by asking Newtown Middle School Principal Jim Ross to speak before the board.
Ross requested a new position be added at the middle school for a Dean of Students who would double as a Project Adventure facilitator. That staff member would interact with students in a physical education context as well as in the capacity of a disciplinarian, freeing up other administrators to focus on their other crucial responsibilities, such as working directly with teachers and refining curriculum.
“I was thinking about a Dean that had multiple responsibilities,” Ross explained. “One would be behavior management at the school, certainly.”
Establishing the need for such a position, he went on to inform the board of the magnitude of student misbehaviors that have become increasingly difficult to manage at the middle school. According to him, with fewer than 100 days of the current academic year behind them, middle school staff has logged 112 minor incidents and 51 major incidents.
“All of these incidents take a thorough investigation,” Ross told the board. “There’s documentation, there’s engaging parents, so it does take time away from Assistant Principal Walsh and myself in being instructional leaders.”
The potential negatives implied by stretching disciplinary administrators thin are not limited to the impact on curriculum, he went on to explain.
“There’s also a big social-emotional learning component to a lot of this. Years ago, there used to be something called a Restitution Officer. Our philosophy is certainly strong with restorative practices when we are dealing with student behaviors, and trying to get to the root of the problem.”
This kind of one-on-one work, he argued, is not only vital to the maintenance of a healthy student-faculty dynamic, but also represents the only long-term, preventative solution towards ensuring that problematic behaviors do not repeat after consequences are administered.
Similarly, Newtown High School Principal Dr Kimberly Longobucco took the stage at the request of board member John Vouros to make the case for the high school’s own Dean of Students.
According to her, this role would focus heavily on the issue of attendance and truancy, a serious problem compounded by the fact that a single day skipped at the high school implies the missing of five to six classes of academic work. This kind of backlog can easily pile up and overwhelm a student who may already be struggling with mental health or academic difficulties.
“When we reduced an Assistant Principal in 2020-2021,” she said, “it increased our Assistant Principals’ workloads dramatically. Obviously by reducing one person it increased the workload for the two people who were left. We don’t have a structure at our high school that includes any deans. Many high schools our size have both assistant principals and deans that are functioning in different capacities, either in the teachers’ union or the administrators’ union.”
Figures she provided to the board indicated quantitatively the disproportionate ratio of administrative faculty to students relative to other nearby schools.
Where in other school systems, she argued, high school caseloads “are divided by either two, three or four people, you can see that ours — with 639 students per my two assistant principals — is a very, very high number for them to manage on their own.”
According to Longobucco, the heavy load leaves principals grappling with hours of disciplinary and attendance-related labor and keeps them out of the classroom, where they could otherwise be working directly with teachers in order to enhance curriculum and student experience.
According to estimates provided by Director of Business Tanja Vadas, the middle school dean position would cost roughly $50,000 after the elimination of a currently serving paraeducator, and the corresponding high school position would cost just under $74,000.
Other amendments considered by the board included an extension of hours for elementary school library staff, an increase in overall security guard compensation, as well as the hiring of an additional behavioral consultant for the elementary schools, among other items.
Board member Todd Higgins voiced some concerns with regard to the fiscal responsibility and political viability of the proposed budget, which after all amendments were accounted for, represents a total increase of 5.36 percent or $4.5 million dollars. While Higgins was sensitive to the necessity of all the amended items, he argued that the board should consider some form of reallocation before reflexively adding on to the budget.
“I’ve sat here and I’ve been trying to draw out what they really need,” he told his fellow board members. “The last thing I want to do is rob Peter to pay Paul. What I’m trying to do is make the point and make the principle that we need to be able to start this budget process by being willing to look where do we want to invest … Respectfully, if a budget is the same year after year except it goes up, and you allocate it the same way, frankly it’s the definition of insanity: to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result.”
Higgins’ fellow board members understood his concern, but were not welcoming to the idea of treating the amendments as reallocations rather than additions. Ramsey argued against the “retroactive” nature of the idea, suggesting these concepts should be incorporated into the next budget instead. Vouros emphasized the necessity of a “maintain and enhance” style of budgeting that does not ask administrators to make painful cuts that might jeopardize the quality of student experience.
Ultimately, the amended budget was passed unanimously after considerable discussion.
Reporter Owen Tanzer can be reached at email@example.com