Year In Review: Topics Covered By The Board Of Education

Published: December 30, 2017 at 12:00 am


The Board of Education looked at a number of topics in 2017, from sleep and transportation to searching for a new superintendent.

Like every year, 2017 began with looking at the coming year's budget. The Superintendent's Requested Operational Plan was first presented to the board at its meeting on January 3. The Board of Education approved its spending plan for 2017-18 at $75,120,605, or a 1.98 percent increase over the 2016-17 budget, at its meeting on February 2. From there the budget went before the Board of Finance and Legislative Council for inspection before finally being approved by voters at referendum. As passed at the referendum in April, the school district budget was approved for $72,995,957, a nine-tenths of a percent (-0.9 percent) reduction from the 2016-17 year.

Also in February, local officials traveled to Hartford to share Newtown's perspective on state budget proposals. Both then-Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, and then-Board of Education Vice Chair Michelle Embree Ku testified about a funding gap Newtown could face if the state's proposed budget was not changed. Concerns about the state budget's local impacts would continue throughout the year.

The school board extended a contract for special education out of district transportation with EdAdvance through June 2019 at its meeting on February 21.

The Board of Education approved a charge at its March 7 meeting for the superintendent to create a School Start Time Committee to research the possibility of changing school start times for either the 2017-18 or 2018-19 school year. According to the approved charge, the goal of the committee was "to research the possibilities of changing school schedules based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that middle and high schools start at 8:30 am or later." The charge began a discussion on sleep that would eventually lead to reconfiguring the district's transportation times.

Also at the March 7 meeting, Newtown Middle School Principal Thomas Einhorn and district Athletic Director Matt Memoli spoke about the potential for expanded athletic programs at NMS. Dr Erardi introduced the topic saying it was the beginning of a conversation for the district to look at the conceptual design of the middle school's athletic program.

For the second time in the 2016-17 school year, school district administrators hosted a community forum on March 29 in the Newtown High School Lecture Hall to hear input on school start times. The first community forum on school start times was held the prior September. Another community forum on May 9 focused on School Start Time And Sleep. At the forum, Dr Jennifer Kanaan shared a presentation on adolescents and sleep. Delayed school start times, Dr Kanaan summarized, offer students a longer time to sleep, decrease the risk of adolescents suffering depression, decrease the risk of motor vehicle accidents, improve reaction time, reduce student tardiness and absences, decrease obesity risk, and offer a potential for better grades and a better quality of life.

The Board of Education's School Start Time Committee presented a "Revised Option 5" to the school board at its meeting on June 6. Committee members had looked at eight transportation options before "revising" a fifth option, a two-tier bus system that would involve Reed Intermediate School and elementary school students sharing buses and a shuttle system for Reed students between schools in the afternoon.

The options were reworked and a public meeting was held on June 20 to discuss three possible school start time scenarios. By the end of the evening, the board had voted to direct the superintendent to adjust school start times for the 2017-18 school year. The presented "Article C" scenario for bus routes was approved, with Reed Intermediate School and the elementary schools starting at 9:05 am and ending the day at 3:37 pm, with a shuttle system in place.

Near the start of July, Dr Erardi had announced his plans to retire before the new school year. The announcement later caused discussions about what characteristics the community wants in its next superintendent.

Transportation And Finances

At the Board of Education's meeting on September 5, then-Chairman Keith Alexander said the district was still holding to its "two-week expectation" of refining the new transportation configuration since the start of the school year. At the meeting six parents voiced concerns that the reconfigured bus system was not working, particularly with later morning arrivals at Reed and in the afternoon at the elementary schools.

The phrase "it is not working" was repeated multiple times by members of the public at the September 19 Board of Education meeting in response to the reconfigured transportation system. School board members went on to support Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr Lorrie Rodrigue's proposal to form a task force to look at the transportation situation.

When sharing a presentation of an overview of the Athletic Department with the Board of Education at its meeting on September 19, district Athletic Director Matt Memoli said it is currently a "pretty exciting time" for athletics at both Newtown High School and Newtown Middle School. NMS Principal Tom Einhorn assisted with the presentation, which highlighted current enrollment in sports programs, stats on coaching, and more. Between the two schools, there were more than 550 student athletes enrolled in fall sports.

Dr Rodrigue told the Board of Education at its meeting on October 3 that the newly formed transportation task force met for the first time on September 19. While Dr Rodrigue said there had been improvements from the start of the school year, the task force would be focusing on "top priority" concerns and it would report its conclusions to the school board.

While sharing his monthly financial report for September at the Board of Education meeting on October 17, School District Business Director Ron Bienkowski highlighted the potential of a $500,000 shortfall, and he recommended a 25 percent hold on principals' budgets until further information is gathered.

"Usually at this time of the year I don't make too many predictions about where I think we are going to be, because it is early in the year," said Mr Bienkowski. "However, at this point there are a number of issues that have come forward that are going to impact financial operations for the coming year." The monthly report shares that expense variations are typical for this time in the fiscal year, "but pressures are exceeding what would be normal for this time of year."

The Board of Education learned at its meeting on October 17 about proposals to address concerns surrounding the reconfigured transportation system this school year, and Dr Lorrie Rodrigue proposed an "immediate remedy" that would have Reed Intermediate School dismiss five minutes earlier to alleviate elementary student wait times this year. Dr Rodrigue also proposed utilizing two buses in Newtown's fleet - which were transporting EdAdvance and St Rose of Lima School students - for the public school routes to transport some Reed students directly to school this school year.

The proposed transportation options for the 2018-19 school year included a three-tier system; a system that would have Reed on its own tier; and a two-tier system that would eliminate the current shuttle system for Reed and the elementary schools.

In an e-mail to parents, Dr Rodrigue announced the implementation of the "immediate remedy" she had discussed with the school board on October 17. Reed began releasing five minutes earlier, at 3:32 pm, starting October 30, and two bus routes had been split to create direct routes to Head O' Meadow Elementary School or Reed.

While sharing his Monthly Financial Report at the Board of Education's November 21 meeting, Mr Bienkowski said the Legislative Council's action at its meeting on November 15 to restore $1,031,481 to the 2017-18 school budget reduced the anticipated shortfall, but a 25 percent expenditure hold was still in place in anticipation of being $496,191 short.

Mr Bienkowski shared a more optimistic budget outlook than he has shared in previous months at the board's meeting on December 19, thanks to calculations related to submitting amounts for the state's Excess Cost Grant. The grant supports special education costs for students that are four and a half times more than the average per pupil expenditure, according to Mr Bienkowski, who also said the state traditionally reimburses approximately 75 percent of the district's costs that exceed the standard.

"When we calculated that grant at 75 percent," said Mr Bienkowski, "it is expected to produced about $201,000 more than we budgeted for this. The total grant will be about $1.6 million.

The anticipated grant amount will impact areas of the budget positively, according to the report. Mr Bienkowski also added the full impact will depend on the state fulfilling the grant as expected and spending holds were still in place.

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