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Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, shared with the Board of Education what he said is a responsible budget that allows the district to both maintain and “move forward” at its meeting on Tuesday, January 3. The $74,996,756 proposed superintendent’s budget represents a 1.81 percent increase over the 2016-17 spending plan.
Dr Erardi said 87.3 percent of the proposed increase is made up by funding for personnel contractual obligations and employee benefits. The 1.81 percent increase, he said, represents a “number nearly several points less than what we approved last year.”
The proposed budget is roughly a $1.3 million increase from last year’s school budget, which was approved by voters last April for $73,665,065.
The Board of Education will continue to learn about different aspects of the proposed spending plan at meetings, and a public hearing is set for Tuesday, January 31. The board will then vote on its approved 2017-18 budget at a planned February 2 meeting before the budget will go before the Board of Finance and Legislative Council for further consideration.
Priorities listed in the superintendent’s proposed budget are support funding for “appropriate class sizes at all levels of instruction,” updating instructional materials as required through the curriculum renewal cycle, continuing a “level funding plan for expansion and sustainability of technology with access and equity for all students,” support funding for the district and town’s joint capital plan, and an effort to continue to pursue opportunities for shared services with town departments.
Dr Erardi spoke to the cost of education, the level of taxes in Newtown, “and the equation that doesn’t seem to work” at the start of his presentation.
The superintendent shared the statewide average cost per pupil was $16,249 in the 2015-16 school year, an increase from the 2014-15 average cost per pupil by about $523. Newtown’s average cost per pupil was $15,871 in the 2015-16 school year, a $433 increase from the previous year.
“Despite, and we have spoken about this a number of times, our overinflated student expenditure because of our grants, we are still less than average per pupil cost,” said Dr Erardi. “And if there is a belief in the community that because of declining enrollment that must be a negative number, I think it is really important to state that there is a decline overall in the state of Connecticut.”
The state enrollment decline is about one percent, according Dr Erardi, and Newtown’s is estimated to be about 2.5 percent.
“And despite a decline in a student population, the cost across the state rose by three percent,” said Dr Erardi. “So I believe the work before the superintendent, the school board, and our staff is to partner with elected officials, with boards and commissions, to examine the base of Newtown. Because we are expensive. Taxes are expensive in town, but this illustrates that the great player in the room is always the local school board, but this also illustrates that there has to be something to build the base to move the dial forward to relieve the homeowner.”
Dr Erardi also spoke to the end of federal grants, while saying the Sandy Hook PTA Foundation remains an “integral partner” with the support of $198,000 in funding for the 2017-18 school year.
When the district administrators first presented the requested 2017-18 spending plan to the superintendent, he said it was a 3.5 percent increase over the 2015-16 budget. Dr Erardi said he “sharpened their pencil just a bit” by roughly $1.2 million to come to the superintendent’s requested budget.
The 1.81 percent increase from the 2015-16 budget, Dr Erardi said represents roughly $660,000 in increased regular education funding, a $22,685 increase to special education and pupil personnel funding, and $649,000 in increases to other areas of the budget, like transportation, legal fees, and benefits.
Requested new staff positions include a part-time world language instructor to expand the district’s elementary world language immersion program another grade level, two stipends for part-time assistant superintendents to oversee math and social studies, a full-time custodian position for Sandy Hook Elementary School, coaches at Newtown Middle School and Newtown High School, and a director of human resources. All proposed new staffing total roughly 3.43 in full-time positions, according to the presentation.
Proposed staffing reductions total 8.4 full-time positions, and include two Sandy Hook School teachers, a Head O’ Meadow Elementary School teacher, two teachers at Reed Intermediate School, two eighth grade teachers at NMS, and one teacher at NHS.
Dr Erardi said the staffing reductions were “almost all” driven by student enrollment.
“It is also important to note… the budget proposal in front of you also includes a reduction of three social workers,” said Dr Erardi, explaining the decision was based on grants ending and, “what we believe is a scaled down mental health provision in regards to need for next year.”
Different areas of the budget, including some of the staffing requests, will be discussed at future board meetings before the board votes on the budget.
Dr Erardi later explained a proposal to reduce pay-to-participate fees for sports over the next five years, with the result of eliminating the fees. Sports that cost $200 will move to $160, those that cost $150 will move to $120, and sports that cost $100 will move to $80, Dr Erardi said, in the first year of the reduction.
During his presentation the superintendent said the challenge ahead for the school board and other local boards and commissions is to make sure the public is as informed as possible on what it will be voting on at the referendum in April.
Elementary And Intermediate School Budgets
The proposed budgets for the elementary schools and Reed Intermediate School were later discussed at the meeting.
As explained in the Superintendent’s Requested Operational Plan, which is available on the district’s website (newtown.k12.ct.us), the proposed elementary budget was compiled by the four elementary school principals as a team. Head O’ Meadow Elementary School Principal Barbara Gasparine, Sandy Hook Elementary School Principal Kathy Gombos, and Middle Gate Elementary School Principal Chris Geissler presented the proposed elementary school spending plan. Hawley Elementary School Principal Christopher Moretti could not attend the meeting.
Ms Gasparine highlighted some of the “points of pride” shared by the elementary school principals in the proposed budget document for the board. She said the district’s elementary world language immersion program and the district’s focus on personalized learning are both points of pride.
When asked about challenges in the budget considerations, Ms Gasparine said safety and security and the emotional impact on students “are the top of our concerns.”
“We really hope the board will continue to maintain the current levels of security we have in place in terms of our guards and the equipment that we have,” Ms Gasparine said.
The elementary school principals, Ms Gasparine continued, see a continued need for school counselors, “both proactively and reactively with our students.”
When asked about the reduction of one social worker at Sandy Hook School, Dr Gombos said the support is more needed at Reed.
Later when asked what the schools may not have received in the budget proposal, Dr Gombos said, “We have what we need, and we are very serious about our guidance counselor staying.”
School board members also discussed classroom enrollment numbers, and Dr Erardi and Ms Gasparine said the projected numbers are subject to change before and throughout the 2017-18 school year.
When she spoke with the board, Ms Uberti said points of pride at Reed include the work completed on curriculum. Biggest concerns for her are also around safety and security in terms of mental health.
When asked about the reduction of one social worker at Reed, Ms Uberti said social workers serve the mental health of all students, not just students that were impacted by the events of 12/14. The level of need is always an unknown, she said, after sharing the reduction was based on grant funding for the social worker no longer being available.
Funding Questions For The 2016-17 Year
During the meeting, Dr Erardi also updated the board on a $186,185 announced reduction to Newtown’s 2016-17 expected Excess Cost Grant funding through the state due to a $20 million reduction to the Excess Cost Sharing program in the state budget.
Dr Erardi said he has been working to sort out what the reduction means and how it will impact Newtown’s 2016-17 spending plan. He also said he plans to work with First Selectman Pat Llodra to be a “loud voice” to share why they feel the Excess Cost Sharing formula at the state level needs to be fixed immediately.
“The $20 million slice, I’m sure is a necessity… but for this to happen in December of the same school year, I just think is unfair,” said Dr Erardi.