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In the first of many budget discussions, New Fairfield’s three main boards met to discuss the school’s proposed budget for the 2020-2021 academic year. The Boards of Selectmen, Finance, and Education had previously reviewed the budget and submitted questions that the administration was prepared to address in the workshop-style meeting. In December, school administrators proposed a 3.16% increase or $1,355,805. The number reflected both increases in the school’s operating budget for $755,805, plus the first installment in debt service for the new school buildings, $600,000. Without the new building amount included, the education budget increase would be calculated at 1.76%.

Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino gave a brief budget overview to start the meeting, noting that the proposed finances are in line with her previously approved goals and stressing that they were generated with “enrollment, programs, and needs of the buildings” in mind. She reminded the boards that the budget is created in trickle-up effect, with careful consideration and input from the staff, then from each school’s administrators, and finally completed at the top levels of administration. Dr. Cosentino emphasized that there had already been a lot of cuts made to the budget numbers and said that they are “prioritizing actual need” in arriving at these figures. The 43-page budget, with year-over-year information is available at Newfairfieldschools.org.

Dr. Richard Sanzo, Director of Finance and Operations, walked the boards through a series of questions, posed by members, relating to line items in the budget. Largely a convivial discussion among the administrators and board members, there was one primary area of concern that bubbled up regarding a $400K request for capital projects at the Middle School. Dr. Sanzo explained that he and Mr. Phil Ross, Director of Buildings and Grounds, asked that the $400K be set aside for future needs, essentially creating a piggy bank for expensive upcoming repairs. Board of Finance Chair Wes Marsh pointed out that the rough plan is understood, however, “we need to be able to defend every line item. We will need some sort of specifics to defend that to the taxpayers…we need to know how you came up with it.”

Dr. Sanzo and Mr. Ross have hired Collier’s International, the project managers for the two new buildings, to work with them on a 10-year maintenance plan for the Middle School. Explaining that the plan will probably show that far more than $400K is truly needed to be saved, they were also cognizant that the bonding has begun on the new buildings. Essentially, Dr. Sanzo pointed out that, hearing the oft-repeated maintenance questions regarding the High School and Consolidated, they want to address issues at the Middle School and not let it deteriorate further.

Special education was a point of discussion, as that department commands a hefty, and  often  unpredictable, chunk  of  the budget. Large expenses for outplacements and transportation continue to be an outlier in the budget planning. For example, this year the number is rising in part due to families moving into the district who have students that are already outplaced. Ms. Katherine Matz, Director of Pupil Personnel Services, noted that “We welcome all families, but it does put some pressure on our budget.” Also, administrators also explained that they worked to find the right fits in the last year with new and repositioned staff, which required some investment.

In a brief sidestep from future planning, Dr. Sanzo was asked about whether the contingency funds in this year’s budget would be needed to cover this year’s special education finances, which he replied to in the affirmative. Though the administration has worked to find savings, such as ride sharing through Ed Advance with other districts, the fees continue to mount. As a result, the district is now under a budget freeze. They have placed an 80% cap on expenses to try to mitigate the Special Education department’s potential shortfall.

Another question centered on the significant increase in staff development funds in next year’s budget. Assistant Superintendent, Ms. Julie Luby, clarified that with new curriculum investment and advances in the recent past, the district needs to bolster the programs with proper staff development.

In discussing requests for new full-time positions, Ms. Luby highlighted the importance of a math instructional coach to support the push to improve math skills throughout the district. Understanding that the three boards were all aware of the ongoing discussion of offering math every day, Ms. Luby explained that at the High School, Algebra 1 will definitely be offered daily next year, which they will be able to accomplish with existing staff. Dr. Cosentino jumped in when there was pushback about other math subjects and said that larger changes to the schedule will likely be made when the new high school is finished, but that the existing schedule will be maintained for the time being.

Other new positions that were discussed included a Gifted and Talented Teacher for the Middle School, a Central Office Administrative Assistant, and a Director of School Security. Some Board of Ed members expressed interest in seeing job descriptions for all new positions, though administrators noted that most of the security position particulars still need to be determined. Board of Finance member, Mr. Anthony Yorio, spoke up for the importance of the security position, saying that the current situation, without a dedicated staff member overseeing things, is untenable. This “puts us in a position where we have inherent points of failure,” Mr. Yorio said.

Dr. Cosentino noted that in planning for current teacher repositioning, they are continuing to follow the class sizes, with staff shifting grades to accommodate the students at the elementary level. At the secondary level, the challenge is always to serve the student’s course choices, which happens in the next month and will help determine staffing needs. Acknowledging the need for difficult decisions, Dr. Cosentino said “I try to keep emotions out of staff planning.”

In a continuation of multi-year technological investments, Director of Technology and Communications, Dr. Karen Fildes, said that the district will be entering a second year of infrastructure improvements.

In addition, there are a large number of Chromebooks that are nearing the end of their life and need to be replaced next year. A new tech position is also in the budget, which will help free up Dr. Fildes to work on the educational side of technology.

Dr. Cosentino explained that marketing funds in the budget are intended to build positive views of the schools and town, plus excite potential new families who may be interested in moving to New Fairfield. “Marketing was something that we talked about when I was hired,” Dr. Cosentino reminded the Board of Education members. To that end, she said that a consulting videographer will be hired to create dynamic videos.

Administrators hope that the Board of Education will adopt the budget by early February. There will be additional discussions between now and then, including at the next regular Board of Education meeting, plus Dr. Cosentino and Dr. Sanzo offered a Facebook Live session for the community on Tuesday, January 14.

The next Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, January 21 at 7pm.

By Sarah Opdahl