Last night, the Board of Finance heard answers to specific questions posed to the Board of Education and regarding their 2012-2013 budgets. With the BOS expected to arrive late due to a separate meeting, the board members began with the education side of the budget.
One major question the BOF had for Superintendent Janet Robinson was why the number of teachers in the district has increased while the enrollment has decreased since 2006.
"Explain to us why we need more staff for less kids," said Chairman John Kortze.
Harry Waterbury said that when it comes to staffing, "I think we need to answer the question twice." He noted that staffing needs at the lower levels are more obvious because of classroom and cluster sizes. But at the high school, it's harder to gauge because it's no longer a simple number of kids per classroom.
Robinson responded that the number of mandates coupled with increased enrollment at the high school level resulted in a need for more staffing in past years. With declining enrollment, traditionally the district has removed teachers. But with seven buildings, the decreases are spread out and may not be in the same school population, explained Robinson. So although removing a teacher in one school would make the numbers look better, it would have an adverse effect at that one school, resulting in larger classrooms.
"In Newtown, we hire and evaluate well," said Robinson. "My experience after many years in education is that we are a very lean district."
Board member Rich Oparowski noted the district does well for achievement per dollar spent. But he wanted to know if enrollment was going to continue to decline and questioned the amount of money spent on administration.
Board member Carol Walsh noted that administrative salaries are a large part of the proposed budget and wanted to know how the Newtown district ranked in this area compared to other schools in its District Reference Group (DRG).
Robinson said enrollment is projected to decline slightly and that Newtown is below the middle line of schools for its spending on administrative salaries.
The BOF also brought up the issue of educational assistants, questioning whether the district would be better served by hiring a few highly certified teachers rather than the many educational assistants (EAs).
Many of the EAs are mandated by the state for special education, said Robinson. EAs have been added for two areas, special education and full-day kindergarten, she said.
Other issues discussed included pay to play at the high school, the future rate of transportation costs and when enrollment numbers warrant closing a school.
First Selectman Pat Llodra presented the BOF with a slideshow answering the questions raised in the .
The town will save an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 on medical benefits, according to Bob Tait, the town's director of finance. Having just come from a meeting regarding the medical benefits, Tait said he would look over the numbers and give the BOF more information of where the savings will be applied.
In response to the board's request to see a zero increase budget, Llodra presented a list of already reduced and deferred costs. Such cuts have already been made in the areas of reduced hours at the pool and landfill, cut personnel, negotiated contracts, reduced employee medical benefits and reduced Fairfield Hills services.
"I don't think I can bring any more to the table than I already have," said Llodra.
Oparowski asked if the town has any assets to sell, besides FFH.
Llodra said the town does not have large tracts of land aside from FFH and the Tech Park.
Llodra remarked that to increase Newtown's grand list, there needs to be more money in the future for the economic development department.
Newtown has one person that does grants and economic development, and "we are underfunding that initiative if we are serious about relieving the taxpayers," said Llodra.
"We're all competing for that limited pot of private money," said Llodra, noting other nearby towns such as Monroe and Brookfield are trying to attract businesses as well.
Llodra prepared a multi-page handout to address the BOF questions about the different fire houses in town. Included in the packet is a variety of information, including how many calls each house receives, the property they own and a list of how the town has supported each location. Llodra noted that is the busiest fire house.
Other items discussed included funding of neighborhood initiatives, distributing of the savings from the bond refinancing and fuel costs.
Visit the town website to view the meeting minutes.