The Newtown Board of Education unanimously approved a budget Tuesday night asking for a 6.26% increase in the 2013-14 fiscal year -- a slight drop from Superintendent Janet Robinson’s proposed 6.54% increase, but still higher than the comparatively modest budgets of past years.
“We’re standing behind this budget. This is the budget we want,” said Board of Education chair Debbie Leidlein. The total -- $72.84 million, down from Robinson’s proposed $73.04 million – will still find room for at least one addition. Before the budget passed, the board added four more security guards to the Superintendent's budget, at a cost of about $82,000, to the existing eight in the budget.
“We have to secure our buildings 24 hours a day,” said board member William Hart. “Whatever we have to have for security people, we need to put that in our budget.”
Newtown currently employs four security staff, according to officials. Hart said he’d like to see a total of sixteen – two for each school, or enough to staff schools with at least one guard from morning to night.
Parents, including many PTA members, have pleaded with the board to “do what has to be done” when it comes to security.
"It’s going to be a hard year to pass the budget," said parent Michelle Hankin, addressing the board. "But parents will advocate for you. Parents are very passionate about their schools ... We’re standing behind it because this is what we need. We can help to get people behind it."
Hankin and other parents who supported increased security measures promised to stand behind the budget at future meetings as long as the board is clear about its goals.
Another hard-sought opportunity for increased security, counseling for students and other services may be fairly near to coming to fruition. School officials are persuing a grant through Project SERV (School Emergency Response to Violence), a program that provides funds to help school districts recover from violent or traumatic incidents.
While a typical SERV grant covers about 18 months, she said, the school is asking for a four-year grant. Officials expect to submit the grant within the week, and expect a response could come in a matter of weeks.
"It sounds like it could be a pretty quick turnaround," Robinson said.
"I See This As Just Playing Catch-Up"
At the same time, the board voted to reduce the original estimate’s building maintenance budget by $250,000, albeit hesitantly. Board members said they regretted putting off "so much for so long that our school systems are in a sad state of repair," according to board member Richard Gaines.
"We've reduced it in the past years down to basically nothing," said Leidlein, who initially proposed a $400,000 reduction. Leidlein said she hoped to see funds spread out over several years for building and maintenance projects.
Members pointed out that many other parts of the budget were essentially untouchable due to contractual requirements or other factors.
“This is pretty beefy,” said board member Cody McCubbin just before voting in favor of the budget. “This is pretty huge. But last year -- that was pretty low. I actually see this as just playing catch-up. A million bucks of this -- way more than a million -- we have to spend no matter what, because of contractual obligations. We have absolutely no choice. It would have to go up either way.”
Comparing the 2013-14 budget to previous years puts the phrase "playing catch-up" in context -- 1.16% in the 2011/2012 fiscal year, or the 0.57% increase in 2012/2013. Officials have said repeatedly the comparatively large number this year was necessary to make up for areas not covered in previous budgets. Goals this year included full-day kindergarten, NEASC preparation and increased graduation requirements.
Business director Ron Bienkowski will prepare the budget for its next stop, the Board of Finance. According to town charter, the finance board must receive the budget by February 14.