The Board of Finance has no line item authority over the school district budget request, but that did not stop its members from suggesting myriad ways the Board of Education and district administration could shave its $73,042,343 spending plan without necessarily eliminating key components like planned security enhancements, technology upgrades, facility maintenance and even full-day kindergarten.
In the end, after nearly more than two hours of questioning school officials and deliberating several motions, the finance board settled on reducing the district’s proposed 6.54 percent increase for the 2013-14 fiscal year by a little more than one percent.
With the two finance board members who had previously moved much larger reductions voting No, the remaining four finance officials endorsed a $750,000 reduction to the requested increase, reducing the size of the increase to 5.47 percent. The board also made adjustments to the municipal side budget request, which contains all town and school capital borrowing expense, leaving the Legislative Council to further consider the overall $111,149,824 spending recommendation.
The council will hear public comment on the revised 2013-14 proposal at a planned public hearing March 27 with the possibility of acting on the request as early as April 3, according to council Chairman Jeff Capeci. By town charter, the council must vote send the budget proposal to public referendum by April 10.
This year’s budget referendum will be Tuesday, April 23.
As in recent years, the three committees of the council will dig into respective sections of the recommended budget plan with a goal of making recommendations on further cuts to the full legislative panel, presumably on April 3. While the finance board is empowered to add or reduce the budget proposal, the Legislative Council can only recommend further reductions.
The meeting began with several residents calling for maintaining the school board’s original budget request or sending it to voter’s unchanged. Others during the public portion of the meeting called for increasing or adjusting a grant program for local private schools to help fund security enhancements in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy.
A short time later, the finance board reviewed that issue after Chairman John Kortze received a legal ruling on a pair of motions introduced two night’s earlier. He informed his colleagues that upon a review of Robert’s Rules of Order, a vote to establish a $150,000 grant fund allowing up to $50,000 for each local private school would stand.
During deliberations on that security proposal March 11, the town attorney determined that the finance board should not have disallowed a 3-1 vote with two finance board members abstaining. While the board subsequently endorsed a motion to establish a $180,000 grant fund, Mr Kortze announced the $150,000 proposal would stand.
The finance board also heard a brief presentation from Assessor Chris Kelsey on how the most recent local property revaluation will affect the town’s grand list, and the upcoming year’s mill rate.
A mill represents one dollar in taxation for every $1,000 in taxable property.
Custodial Staffing Examined
During an extended question and answer session with school board Chair Debbie Leidlein, Superintendent Janet Robinson and district Business Manager Ron Bienkowski, finance officials first questioned custodial staffing levels. Mr Kortze pointed out that while the local high school keeps 17 and all other schools in the district maintains a roster of four custodians, a formula used nationally by schools to determine custodial staffing levels recommends a slightly smaller staffing level based on building population and myriad other factors.
Mr Bienkowski countered with a number of reasons why that formula might not be applicable to the local district, because custodians may perform certain duties that are handled by a separate maintenance force, or cafeteria workers. The district business officials also pointed out that when the local high school addition was completed, the district planned to further increase the compliment of custodians at that facility, but never hired those additional workers.
Questioning Town Finance Director Robert Tait and First Selectman Pat Llodra, Mr Kortze then determined the town side of the budget contains approximately $30,000 for an outsourced custodial service that handles cleaning at the municipal center.
The finance board then turned its attention to a request to add another assistant principal at the high school. Dr Robinson defended the request reiterating incoming state mandates for teacher evaluations — some of which must be performed by school principals or assistants.
Upon questioning by finance board member Carol Walsh, Dr Robinson calculated that with current staffing, each high school administrator would be responsible for handling 88 teacher evaluations. She also said the district could tap a private, per diem service to handle those duties, but Dr Robinson said that option was determined to be unfeasible economically.
Consulting with Mr Tait, Mr Kortze determined that the district could reduce its estimate for Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) by about 50 percent. Most of the remaining discussion centered on class sizes, overall student enrollment trends and teacher staffing levels.
Concerns About Staffing
Finance board member Richard Oparowski noted that as in the previous year, he believes local taxpayers could be skeptical about a budget that continues to increase staffing when student enrollment levels continue to trend downward. He also said that by the district favoring maintaining or increasing staffing, leaders have “dug a hole” for themselves by instead reducing or eliminating budgeting for maintenance and technology.
“Now you are trying to play catch up,” Mr Oparowski observed.
Turning to adjustments on the municipal side of the budget request, the finance board approved a $1,600 increase for the police chief; a $1,000 increase for the police captain; a reduction in anticipated equipment fuel cost of $30,663; and a $2,616 reduction in projected heating costs for public buildings other than the schools.
The finance board previously authorized increasing the municipal budget by $420,000 to accommodate hiring and training additional police personnel to staff district elementary schools, and to bring a Reed Intermediate School officer on board full-time. Those actions set the final town-side request at $39,054,520, of which $10,058,924 is debt service on committed school and town capital borrowing.
Mr Oparowski then opened deliberations on the school request by proposing a $1.5 million reduction. After explaining his observations on how the district could arrive at that reduction, the motion failed by a 2-4 vote.
Finance Vice Chair Joe Kearney then proposed a $1,164,540 reduction, offering an analysis he calculated from a “macro perspective.” He argued that by his analysis, district staffing increases versus school enrollment trends are continuing to diverge exponentially.
Mr Kearney also suggested that by his macro calculations, the current trends of hiring versus enrollment justify the district closing a school “sooner rather than later.”
“Left unchanged, the town will spend more than $20,000 per student in six years,” Mr Kearney estimated.
Ms Leidlein countered that while Mr Kearney’s formula may appear logical on a macro level, from a micro level, staffing the local district with an eye on keeping class sizes within local guidelines is much more complicated and challenging. She also cited the unknown of what added demands might be put on Reed School staff in September, once current Sandy Hook students transition to the intermediate facility.
Mr Kortze also suggested the board pursue phasing technology and facility maintenance improvements over several years, instead of stepping up all in the upcoming fiscal cycle. He offered a formula that would permit the district to replace obsolete technology, as well as make facility improvements including security measures, while likely preserving proposed full day kindergarten.
The finance chair also reminded district officials that adjusting several big ticket proposals might be a prudent move, considering the April referendum will be the first in which taxpayers can vote to support or reject the school districts proposed budget separately from the town.
His motion to make a $750,000 reduction was met with a suggested amendment from Ms Walsh, who requested considering a $650,000 adjustment instead. But only she and colleague James Gaston, Jr, supported that motion.
The original motion for a $750,000 reduction from Mr Kortze then carried.