Following a similar appeal by Acting Superintendent John Reed via a two-part video broadcast on The Bee’s YouTube channel, a number of other local officials requested to post face-to-face messages to local taxpayers.
Those officials — First Selectman Pat Llodra, Selectman James Gaston, Board of Finance Chairman John Kortze, Board of Education Chair Debbie Leidlein, and Legislative Council Chairman Jeff Capeci, Vice Chair Mary Ann Jacob and Education Committee Chair Kathryn Fetchick — all voiced support for passing the latest district request.
In addition, resident and former Charter Revision commissioner Michelle Embree Ku helped organize a group of local officials and education supporters, who all contributed to place a high profile budget advocacy ad in this week’s edition of The Bee. Ms Ku, along with a growing number of residents, are enlisting print and Internet social media, as well as phone trees for a final “get out the vote” push ahead of the third-round school referendum.
That referendum has been scheduled for Tuesday, June 4, with a special absentee voting session set for Saturday, June 1, from 9 am to noon at the town clerk’s office in Newtown Municipal Center, 3 Primrose Street, Fairfield Hills.
Polls will be open at the Newtown Middle School, 11 Queen Street, June 4 from 6 am to 8 pm, for all qualified voters.
Voters passed the municipal budget request in a split May 14 referendum, while the school proposal failed by 52 votes. If approved, the requested district increase would be 3.93 percent, providing a $71,045,304 spending allocation.
Prior to the council’s latest reduction, the district budget increase stood at 4.37 percent.
If voters support the latest proposal, it would deliver a total budget increase of 3.58 percent, and a 2013-14 tax rate of 33.32 mills. A mill represents one dollar in taxation for every $1,000 in taxable property.
Among the points made in her video message, Mrs Llodra thanked taxpayers for passing the municipal side budget. She also was among officials noting that a recent Phase I federal grant received by the school district would not inject funding that could be offset by additional budget reductions.
“We’re asking truly, that the community evidence some faith in our future, and confidence by investing in our school system,” Mrs Llodra said.
Speaking about state resources coming back to the community, the first selectman noted that the town has received $3.5 million less this year than just four years ago. She said the town has begun to offset those losses through efficiencies like taking on a self-insurance plan for town and district workers, as well as beginning consolidation of town and school financial management.
In the future, Mrs Llodra said Newtown would be leaning on the state more heavily to assist with recovery from the 12/14 tragedy.
Mr Gaston focused one of the major concerns he was hearing about from his constituents, regarding the increasing budget versus falling enrollment. He explained that there is no dollar-for-dollar increase for teacher or personnel cost when enrollments trend up across several grades.
“You don’t have to go out and buy a new teacher if there are 21, as opposed to 22 students in a class,” Mr Gaston said. “Likewise, it’s the same way going down.”
He said the district cannot lay off a teacher just because a few select class sizes drop by one or two students.
Mr Kortze talked, in part, about the level of teamwork he is seeing among officials working to chart the appropriate financial course for the community.
“For a number of years now, there has been a tremendous amount of cooperation among the major boards,” he said, adding that the cooperation continued “ten-fold” since 12/14.
Mr Kortze also spoke to his board’s concern about supporting a reestablishment of a system of spreading out major facilities and technology upgrades over a five-year window.
“The budget, where it stands now, is in jeopardy of that not going forward. And at some point, there’s a point of no return regarding buildings and technology,” Mr Kortze said.
Ms Leidlein reinforced a number of points of concern articulated to her board by Dr Reed about potential misunderstandings about how the district could use incoming grants.
“None of these monies are currently in the school budget,” she said speaking of a recent $1.3 million federal SERV grant.
“This does not mean that $1.3 million can be taken from what the Board of Education is currently asking for. That is not allowed based on the [(application] requirements of this grant,” she explained.
The school board chair mentioned, however, that the school district will be looking at making further reductions to the budget if and when contract and purchasing savings become more evident in the closing month of the current fiscal year.
Mr Capeci said he felt the third-round proposal struck an acceptable enough balance between funding critical district needs and accounting for the increasing burden on local taxpayers, that he would support the request.
“I voted for it at the council,” Mr Capeci said. “I think [Dr Reed] spoke at our meeting [saying[ it was going to be a difficult year recovering from December 14… that he would do his best to steward tax dollars wisely, and I have every confidence that he will spend the money where it is needed.”
Ms Jacob demonstrated the web-based tool that helps property owners understand how the recent revaluation would influence their 2013-14 tax liability.
She said when residents hear about the increase in the budget, and the corresponding proposed mill rate increase without having any hard facts about how this affects them personally, they are shocked at the number and think, “My taxes must be going up a lot.”
“There are people whose taxes are going up,” she said. “But I think it’s important for every single homeowner to go and find out what the answer is, because many, many residents’ taxes are going down.”
Ms Fetchick spoke in support of the third-round proposal and her confidence in Dr Reed’s ability to utilize the increase to the district’s best advantage.
“John Reed is somebody we can trust to do the right thing,” Ms Fetchick said, noting that since 12/14, Dr Reed has been volunteering at the Chalk Hill/Sandy Hook facility.
She said as a result of his growing familiarity with staff and student challenges in the wake of the shootings that Dr Reed knows what needs to be done.
“We need to put our trust in him.”
Several officials also encouraged local taxpayers to reach out to them or their district council representatives if they have not already, with any questions or concerns about the June 4 district budget request.