For a little more than an hour during their October 24 meeting, members of the finance board, Acting School Superintendent John Reed and Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein conducted a candid discussion about the upcoming budget process. Finance board Chairman John Kortze said he had asked the school officials to visit with his board early on in the process.
[An audio recording of the discussion can be found here.]
“I was hopeful you could give us a 10,000 foot view, your thumbnail game plan at this point,” Mr Kortze said.
Ms Leidlein began the conversation by reviewing an October 1 enrollment report that indicated the district has lost 250 students since last year. She said the drop did not come as a complete surprise to the school board, and that both Dr Reed and the last independent enrollment study had indentified the declining enrollment trend.
“I think as we move forward, although we’ve been making some changes to staffing, we haven’t been as aggressive as we could have about reducing staffing because the push was to keep class sizes low,” Ms Leidlein said. “This coming year the board will be discussing how we’re going to look at class sizes and staffing at all different levels in order to address declining enrollment and the budget costs.”
Dr Reed clarified that the decline was 242 students, which included those lost on 12/14, putting the actual drop in enrollment at 222. He recalled that over the many years of his prior tenure as superintendent he would go before residents during budget season and lobby for the necessary funds he thought the district would need.
“I generally ended (saying) whatever you give us we’ll knock ourselves out spending what you give us and you’ll be proud of what we do,” Dr Reed said, adding that this year is different. “I know people want to get back to normal in Newtown, but this school system is in my mind still going through some significant challenges. This isn’t business as usual. Our needs are significantly different than other area school systems.”
Security Vs Facilities
Dr Reed said since the district had not yet heard about receiving additional federal grants that were applied for, he and the board agreed to suspended $740,000 in purchase orders assigned to facility-related projects in favor of supporting planned security enhancements.
On the subject of enrollment, Dr Reed said during the last budget preparation process he and the school board determined that, “this was not a year to play around with class size.”
“From a clinical point of view, it was imperative that the kids in this school system who frankly had a lot of their childhood removed from them last December, we felt they had to be in the optimum class size the town could provide for them,” he said. “That’s why I don’t think you saw the kind of (staff) reductions I think you would have seen.”
He said for next year, the board has directed Dr Reed to look at class size during the budget preparation process. He said both the high school and middle school facilities were appropriately sized and staffed, so reductions would likely affect the intermediate and elementary levels of the district.
Dr Reed said that while the district shed about 20 full-time classroom positions over the last three budget years, there has been a steady increase in demand for special education services, and he expected that need to grow in part, because of the after effects of 12/14.
“I’m here tonight to assure you that it’s going to be a very transparent and open process,” he said about the next round budget, “and we’ll work very hard to help the public understand.”
Finance board member Carol Walsh said that she believes that despite the additional needs related to 12/14 recovery, it will continue to be difficult to pass the next school budget. She was also concerned about the decision to forego infrastructure and facility projects.
She encouraged the school officials to think creatively and to explore whether the district could combine more services or share services with other districts or communities to pare down some costs.
Budget Sessions Beginning
Finance board member James Filan asked how plans were progressing toward a series of budget development meetings Dr Reed was planning to hold with parents and residents. Dr. Reed replied that he was poised to hold the first of those sessions.
“I wish there was more than one of me to go around,” Dr. Reed replied. “I spend about 45 percent of my day on items related to Sandy Hook School. There will be more opportunities for members of the town to attend budget seminars. I’m working as hard as I know how on behalf of the community right now, but we could always do more.”
Finance member Harrison Waterbury said he can not believe how much 12/14 has affected residents.
“It’s almost like the roof fell in,” he said. “And we have to repair the roof. We really need to be able to really explain that.”
Dr Reed said while the events of 12/14 happened within the school system, it affects people everywhere in town even if they do not have children in the system.
“There is a convergence of things that I don’t think busy people have time to think about or understand,” the least of which is a newly mandated teacher evaluation system, Dr Reed told the board. “I have serious doubts that we are equipped administratively to do each and every aspect of it because the state did not identify a standard as to how many people one (administrator) could evaluate.
“We’re not going to be coming in asking for new administrators,” Dr Reed continued. “But when some people say we could reduce more, I may be saying this is not the time we can walk away from it.”
The school chief said that the current school year, and possibly the near future years will reflect a lot more parents pulling their children out of the Newtown district.
First Selectman Pat Llodra, who attended the meeting, said she and Dr Reed are probably spending about 60 percent of their time dealing with something rooted in the 12/14 event. And that she and the interim superintendent would probably like to have the time to do a lot more public outreach on the budget.
“We’re going to need some help finding ways to reach out and to help them understand the process of budget development,” Mrs Llodra said. “Over the years and the five budgets I’ve developed, I’m stunned sometimes about how little people understand it, and what people don’t know.”
Scrambling To Explain
Mrs Llodra said officials have found themselves scrambling in early April trying to explain specific budget implications when officials have been engaged in the process for many months.
“If you tell me there’s going to be four people at somebody’s house, I’ll come out. There’s not going to be any shortage of effort for anybody who wants to learn about the school system,” Dr Reed said. “I’m everybody’s superintendent whether they have kids in the school system or they don’t have kids in the school system.”
Dr Reed said he believes a budget is also a definition of values, and the finance board will be hearing from different parties during the development process who have their own values.
“Just don’t let the reality of what happened in December be lost in those discussions,” he added.
Mr Kortze said he sees a structural problem, and that he thought that the during last budget process residents would have been more likely to give the district the level of support that was initially requested coming so close on the heels of the town’s tragedy.
“But that’s not what happened,” Mr Kortze said. “After all of that the budget still failed by the second largest (number) since 2007.”
Dr Reed said that if every parent who had children in the school system supported the annual school budget, it would never fail. Mr Kortze agreed saying that Dr Reed’s observation was exactly the reason why more candid budget discussions need to occur.
Returning to the issue of security, Mr Kortze asked whether the amount allocated for that in the current budget was adequate.
Dr Reed said that very few decisions were made about security plans because town officials decided to put a significant chunk of money into a contingency fund to underwrite future security expenses. Mrs Llodra said, however, that funds were allocated to contingency in the event grants that came to the town stipulated use for supplementing instead of supplanting budgeted expenses.
“As you begin budget development this year, if you remove the contingency in the Board of Ed budget, I don’t see that decisions were made in the town to allocate additional resources to some areas of security from a building point of view,” Dr Reed said. “There was $214,000 in the budget for extra security officers, which I don’t see going away in the future.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Mr Kortze admitted. “The contingency money had nothing to do with the Board of Education budget, it had to do with things that fell under the auspices of the town’s control.”
He said when the school board came asking for funds to hire security guards, the finance board supported providing what the district requested.
Stronger Security Presence
Dr Reed said he is still in the dark about whether the town was getting any added relief from grants in process. But he said the district was not about to open the schools last September having done nothing regarding strengthening security practices.
“It would have been very hard to open this school system looking the staff and community in the eye and saying surrounding towns have done this and this while we’ve done nothing,” Dr Reed said. “We decided we were not going to wait for the grant. It was an appropriate decision and we are prepared to live with the consequences. If we get the grant the consequences will be minimal.”
Dr Reed tried comparing the need for increased security spending to technology, saying when a district has dedicated technology spending budgeted year-to-year, that funding will support the cost of ownership. But when there is no ongoing funding or limited funding for technology, requests for funding will increase more acutely when upgraded or new technology is required.
Mr Kortze then turned to enrollment declines, noting that an initial projection of a drop of about 80 students at the beginning of the budget year was starkly contrasted against the actual loss of 242 students by October 1. He also noted that the latest enrollment report illustrates some of the reasons behind the significant drop.
Dr Reed said he asked that data be included in the report because he wanted to try and understand it himself.
Mr Kortze said that he hoped to see the information in the future so officials could have a better understanding about why students are leaving the district. Mrs Llodra suggested that some of that background data could be available going back about three years when she asked the former superintendent to work up the information.
The next question involved why the district was going to delay a formal school enrollment study until the 2014-15 school year. Dr Reed said that he feels that next year is the right time to develop a new study for various reasons, and that his opinion was confirmed by a enrollment population expert the superintendent consulted informally earlier this year.
He said that the last formal enrollment report was relatively close to actual numbers except with Sandy Hook’s enrollment, but it was done near the beginning of a period of increasing enrollment declines. Mr Kortze observed that, regardless of the reason, the level of decline will have a statistical impact on district budgeting practices in the future.
“I completely understand, but these demographic declines lend themselves to taxpayers asking the question, what the hell are we going to do about it,” Mr Kortze said. “Two of the last three years this body (and the council) passed on to the public what the board of education asked for and it failed miserably.”
Staff Reduction Challenge
Responding to a query from Mr Kortze about how officials can explain that situation to budget voters, Dr Reed said that it is extremely difficult to correlate future staff reductions to enrollment decline because it is spread so thinly across the entire district landscape.
“If they all came at one grade level at one school it’s easier to consolidate,” Dr Reed responded. “You reach a point with three classes on grade level, and begin contemplating going from three to two and you have 60 kids, you’re looking at either going to open with 20 in a class or 30. This town is not going to open with 30 in a class.”
The superintendent said some of the challenge is residents willingness to make judgments based on “simplistic analysis of enrollment.”
“Simplistic analyses are very appealing to people, and if people keep talking long enough (saying) nothing has been done…certainly we understand the elephant in the room,” Dr Reed said.
He asked the finance board to consider several towns in lower Fairfield County that opted to close schools too soon during periods of declining enrollment, that were forced to buy back schools as the cycle of enrollment turned around.
“We don’t want to make a decision about closing a school or part of a school having it converted to a new police station or whatever. Then telling the town five years later that we have a boom economy, birthrates are up and we need that school back,” he said. “The key thing is being able to make a decision that is sustainable.”
Dr Reed said when and if the district comes to that point, all decisions should be on the table.
“The folly to me is when people start to speculate it will be this school, or that school,” he said. Dr Reed added that when a community closes a school, a number of studies (indicate) the potential for long-term savings realized from making another school larger may not be as substantial as the average person may believe.
“We don’t have the right information to make a decision this January about what we are going to do three years from now about closing a school,” Dr Reed said.
Mr Kortze urged Dr Reed and the board to start slowly by helping the public understand what the budget is going to look like before it comes before the finance board and council next April.
“I can’t sit here and buy into a negative expectation,” the superintendent said. “Because I’ve got to assume we’re going to go out and be available, be transparent, and I hope we are going to hear that we’ve done a pretty realistic job with the budget.
“I understand the impact of the board of ed budget on unifying the town to the greatest extent possible,” he continued. “But if there are people in town whose goal is to get the budget reduced by two or three million, I’m not going to have much luck talking to them.”
Mr Kortze said there has to be an understanding amongst the greater population that the district is trying to reduce the budget.