Unanimous Approval For 2019-20 School 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, at its February 5 meeting.
As approved, the spending plan is nearly the same amount first proposed by the superintendent of schools near the start of January. As presented at the school board’s January 15 meeting, the superintendent’s proposed 2019-20 budget was $78,108,940, also roughly a 2.7 percent increase from the current year’s budget.
The unanimous decision on February 5 to support the budget came after a number of approved and failed motions.
With the Board of Education’s approval of its budget, the spending plan will go before the Board of Finance and Legislative Council for review. The Board of Finance has a public hearing on the budget slated for Thursday, February 14, at 7 pm, at Newtown Municipal Center.
Since January 15, the school board took a closer look at the proposed budgets for the elementary schools, Reed Intermediate School, Newtown Middle School, Newtown High School, technology, curriculum, continuing education, building and site maintenance, benefits, general services, transportation, special education, pupil personnel, and health at multiple meetings before voting on its budget February 5.
Budget deliberations at meetings leading up to the February 5 meeting included board members and district leaders discussing a proposed new district-level director of teaching and learning, student achievement, a new pay to participate proposal for high school sports, and district efforts to create a “more robust and unique behavioral program,” as described by Director of Pupil Services Deborah Petersen at the board’s January 17 meeting.
The board’s first adjustment to the budget proposal at this week’s meeting was a net reduction of $5,496 due to adjustments presented by district Business Director Ron Bienkowski at the start of the meeting. He explained the adjustments reflected budget information learned after the construction of the superintendent’s proposed spending plan.
Later, board member Dan Delia shared his intent to not make any motions that would increase the proposed spending plan.
“I am very steadfast in trying to make fiscally responsible motions, support our teachers, our administrators, [and] support learning. But I also have to represent the taxpayers and I hear from them. And I am not going to put a motion forward that increases the budget,” said Mr Delia.
Both Mr Delia and board member Andrew Clure voiced support during the evening for motions that would decrease one aspect of the budget in order reallocate spending to other areas of the budget, rather than increase the proposed budget overall. After board members expressed confusion or a lack of support for combined motions, proposals were presented individually with discussion around where the funding could come from.
The first unsupported combined motion of the evening was made by Mr Delia, who moved to reduce the building and site maintenance budget by $50,000 to increase the curriculum budget by $50,000 in order to support extending the proposed new director of teaching and learning position to begin in September rather than January, which was originally proposed in the superintendent’s budget.
“I’ve been very active in researching the director of teaching and learning, and I think hiring someone with six months to go in the year is not effective,” said Mr Delia. “My proposal would be to push the start date up for that job to September 1, so that person could have a significant impact on the children in this district.”
After Mr Bienkowski pointed out that Mr Delia’s motion did not pinpoint where the money would come from in the building and site maintenance budget, board Vice Chair Rebekah Harriman-Stites offered a motion. Saying it “pained” her to make the motion, Ms Harriman-Stites moved to reduce $50,000 — representing a $25,000 interior ceiling project at Newtown High School and a $25,000 interior painting project at Reed Intermediate School, according to discussion at the meeting — from the building and site maintenance budget. After that motion passed, with Board of Education Chair Michelle Embree Ku and Secretary Dan Cruson, Jr, voting against it, the board again took up the idea of increasing the proposed director of teaching and learning position.
According to a draft job description of the new director of teaching and learning, as supplied by the district, responsibilities of the director of teaching and learning would include assisting in the coordination and implementation of teaching and learning practices that are consistent with standards and aligned at each grade and level; supporting the development, evaluation, and revision of curriculum and instruction at each grade level; implementing newly approved instructional programs; leading and facilitating an ongoing professional development program for teachers to support high-quality curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and soliciting feedback from department heads and teachers to plan and implement summer institute workshops that are focused on the priorities outlined in school improvement plans and district strategic plan.
Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue said she was excited to hear the idea that the position could be extended to start in September rather than January.
“We’re poised in this district for a new team,” said Dr Rodrigue, adding that the start of the position would still be staggered to reflect when a new assistant superintendent is hired and starts their position. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jean Evans Davila announced her pending resignation in October.
Dr Rodrigue said “plenty” of time would be allowed between hiring a new assistant superintendent and hiring a director of teaching and learning, adding that a January start would be more difficult for the position.
“It’s the cohesiveness we need, it’s the consistency, it’s the direction, and we need to have that and we need to have that fast,” said Dr Rodrigue about the director of teaching and learning. “So I think the earlier we can start this as a team is better.”
The board then voted — with Mr Cruson voting against the motion after expressing concern for too early of a start date — to add $50,966 to the budget to extend the director of teaching and learning position.
A motion, which did not change what the money would be spent on, to move an expenditure from the high school’s science department budget to the curriculum budget was passed unanimously after Mr Delia presented it.
Failed motions during the evening included Mr Clure presenting to remove $1,000 for a stage expense for the Newtown Middle School Moving Up Ceremony from the budget, sharing his support for instead using the $1,000 to fund uniforms for the NMS cross country students, who he said currently wear white T-shirts. His fellow board members were cautious about supporting a motion without “enough information,” as Ms Ku pointed out, as the expense for purchasing uniforms was unknown. The stage expense, according to discussion at the meeting, would be “saved” if the NMS Moving Up Ceremony could be held in the high school’s auditorium rather than it’s gymnasium, but Dr Rodrigue pointed out that would be a tight fit for the projected number of students and families.
Mr Delia also presented a motion to reduce the budget by $10,000 from the planned amount to host what would be a second annual professional development conference, with the intent of moving that amount to support professional development in math. The motion eventually failed.
Mr Clure later presented another motion that failed: To freeze the district’s current pay to participate fees for all sports but hockey, which would have a new $160 fee, and reduce the athletic budget by $30,000. Only Mr Clure voted for his motion.
After a sports self-study was conducted, District Athletic Director Matt Memoli presented proposed changes at the board’s November 6 meeting, including changing the district’s pay to participate fees to be $160 per sport with a family cap of $450, except ice hockey, which would have a recommended $250 pay to participate fee and the same family cap of $450. Ice hockey, Mr Memoli said at the time, would be the district’s most expensive sport per player, and changing the pay to participate fees would allow it to be more equitably funded by the district. Those changes are included in the proposed 2019-20 budget. The pay to participate fees are currently tiered between $80 and $160.
District parent Dennis Brestovansky, who spoke from his experience with the Newtown Ice Hockey Booster Club and participating with the months-long sports self-study, later spoke during public participation, sharing disappointment at the board’s pay to participate discussion that evening.
“There are counter proposals being made that are completely not fact-based,” said Mr Brestovansky, adding that the self-study task force spent hours devising a structure that would be fair. Later he added, “The proposal as was made, and thankfully voted down, would have negated everything that we did as a committee. It would have caused sports who are already paying more than anybody else, when you sum it all up, to lose any benefit from the athletic department.”
Mr Brestovansky asked for facts to be considered, for the costs to be compared “year over year,” and said that compared to the 2016-17 school year, the next year’s pay to participate levels for almost half the sports would go down by $40, and about 40 percent of sports fees would go up by $10, with proposed family protections in place.
Prior to the evening’s budget discussion, resident Carolyn Mandarano expressed concern that enrollment continues to decline while the budget continues to increase. She also questioned if there is an ability to “manage to a flat budget or to reduce the budget given what is happening with our enrollment.” Ms Mandarano also requested that the school board share further information soon or ahead of the referendum “to give us townspeople an opportunity to really get into the details.”
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