For the second meeting in a row, Board of Finance Joe Kearney spent time reviewing school enrollment and budget trends. While most of the core data he reviewed was the same as information Mr Kearney initially presented on January 23, he did adjust the coming year’s data to accommodate the 0.75 percent increase that Interim Superintendent John Reed requested from the Board of Education during a meeting on the same evening.
Mr Kearney’s review also updated school enrollment projections from the overall number of 4,951 to 4,716 — a figure the school board is using in its 2014-15 budget proposal. (See Mr Kearney’s data here.)
The finance official told The Bee following the meeting that his update closely resembles what he previously presented incorporating the two modifications to enrollment.
“The first is for last year when I originally had 4,951 from the October 1 published number,” he explained. “This has been adjusted by the board of education to be 4,880 or a decrease of 71 students. The [school board] appeared to roll that decrease forward to this proposed budget year so I replace [district enrollment consultant Dr Hyung Chung’s] projection of 4,786 with the school board’s projection of 4,716. The remaining projections are from Chung’s numbers.”
Mr Kearney also supplemented his second presentation with some additional graphs that to help illustrate the figures.
“They are described on each graph, but I have carried the projected increase for this year of 0.75 percent for the BOE as the same increase in future years. I also use a one percent increase for the town in the out years,” he added.
Mr Kearney said the spreadsheet and graphs illustrate how a rapidly declining student population can provide for an increased expenditure on a per pupil basis even when the education budget increase is modest.
“In fact, even if the budget was decreased, the per pupil expenditure will increase, even after adjustment for inflation,” Mr Kearney said. “I have another schedule that illustrates that scenario. In every case I examined, the per pupil expenditure exceeds inflation — in most cases by several full percentage points.”
The purpose of developing and maintaining the database was originally to aggregate a large set of information on one file so that he did not have to constantly drag around previous budget books.
“I have made reference to these numbers and charts for several years now, but decided to spend some additional time in advance of the budget deliberations so that we were all looking at current data and scenarios,” he said. “I hasten to add that while I have tried to be careful with source data, if there is any incorrect data I will be glad to make any necessary adjustments.”
Mr Kearney freely admitted that any conclusions he might make are based only on the data and the direction that the data points.
“I fully recognize that budgets, especially town and education budgets, are complicated creatures with a lot of moving parts,” he said. “We need to continue to carefully examine ways in which we can counter the effects of the enrollment with as many efficiencies as possible and do it as quickly as possible.”
He said ultimately, budgets will stand or fall on whether the public fully understands them and is able and willing to pay the taxes necessary to fund them.
Following Mr Kearney’s first presentation, Board of Education member Michelle Ku reviewed the data and initiated a series of e-mail correspondence with the finance official. Her first was regarding why he incorporated inflation figures into his spreadsheets, but did not carry that data over to the package of charts he developed from the trends.
“Wouldn’t that give a better picture of whether the budgets are in keeping with the enrollment numbers?” she asked.
Mr Kearney replied that he added an inflation column primarily to see if the district was trending above or below the average inflation for both the town and the schools.
“Rather than adding additional graphs I decided to simply accumulate the amount above or below the rate of inflation on a separate schedule,” he said. “I have subsequently broken out the debt service from the town budget since that particular graph was confusing. I think that this year there will be a lot of valid questions regarding our budgets, but I am reluctant to add too much more to what I have already done until we have already until I have completely verified the information.”
Mr Kearney told the school board official that he is confident of the budget numbers for the town and school as well as the actual and projected enrollments.
“The inflation data is published by the government and the Full Time Equivalents are right from the budget books when the budget is presented but that number may change during the year and what we initially budget for is not always the final number,” he said in his e-mail to Ms Ku. “Per pupil expenditure is merely a mathematical expression of the adopted or projected budget divided by the actual or projected student population.”
Ms Ku responded saying she likes to compile budget numbers in a graph and chart format as well.
“Adjusting for CPI [Consumer Price Index] helped me to see a different perspective,” she said.
Mr Kearney stressed that in reviewing his data, readers should note a more rapidly declining enrollment relative to other districts has the effect of increasing per pupil expenditures in total and also relative to those other schools.
“This was illustrated by the state’s published net student expenditure data for the 2012-2013 school year,” he concluded. “Newtown is ranked 117 [out of] 169, but the previous year we were ranked 141. It is likely that we will continue to move up the per pupil expenditure, if enrollments continue to decline relative to other towns ahead of us.”
Following the presentation, finance board chair John Kortze told The Bee that if the 0.75 percent increase proposed by the district is eventually approved by taxpayers, it would accelerate Newtown’s ranking in per pupil spending significantly.
He said if all other Connecticut community school budgets remained static in the next fiscal cycle – acknowledging that scenario is unlikely, but for the purposes of illustration – Newtown’s per pupil spending rank would go from 117 to 77.
Editor's Note: After publishing this report, the Newtown School District supplied documentation from the State Dept. of Education ranking Newtown's per-pupil spending at 120.