NEW FAIRFIELD – At their December 20 meeting, New Fairfield Board of Education members reviewed a New England School Development Council (NESDEC) report that confirmed a continuing pattern of decreasing enrollment in the district. The report is compiled free-of-charge and its results of declining enrollment are echoed throughout the region in similar districts. “Connecticut is leading the decline, but it’s a New England problem,” board member Ed Sbordone said.
The numbers will be reflected in the upcoming proposed budget. Dr. Pat Cosentino stated, “you have to provide the best academic programs for kids…but you also need to be fiscally responsible to taxpayers.” She said she wants the staff to understand that reallocations and placement shifts that are proposed for next year are justified by the numbers.
The enrollment shift is dramatically exemplified with numbers such as 213 graduating seniors versus 112 kindergarten students this year. Another example was the extreme downward trend in matriculating high school students, which was approximately 1100 students in 2012, compared to less than 800 total students this year.
Dr. Cosentino says that the numbers are adding up slowly in drip-drip fashion, but it is a fact that “we are losing students every year.” She points to the realities many small towns in Connecticut are facing including families having less children, leaving the state, there are fewer jobs, and more. She said that there are some plans in the works to help mitigate the issue, including marketing strategies with local real estate firms. “We have to get in the mindset of selling ourselves, selling New Fairfield…” Dr. Cosentino said.
Chair Peggy Katkocin pointed out that “the numbers don’t tell the whole story,” in terms of faculty and staffing needs, pointing to the increased number of special education needs in the town and the rise and shift in state mandates and requirements.
The group discussed the possibility of accepting students from Danbury, as that town is experiencing overcrowding–a pattern that is similar to all of the bigger towns in the state. However, Dr. Cosentino explained that though Danbury would likely be happy to send students, there would not be an appetite for paying tuition. Another idea bandied was the possibility of teaming up with another small district, but the consensus was that the towns typically do not want to give up any control through their boards.
Ms. Samantha Mannion pointed out that the private schools, outplaced students, students from Sherman, and others do not appear to be included in the report. Dr. Cosentino is going to ask NESDEC to update the report to include those students.
After Hours Security Position Approved: The board unanimously approved an after-hours security guard position for New Fairfield High School. The candidate will be procured through Securitas, a global company specializing in security solutions with a local office in Danbury. The position, at $22.32 per hour, will be staffed from 3pm to 10pm and stationed at the NFHS entrance near the clock tower. The guard will be positioned at the door with the kiosk and will monitor the comings and goings of all community members and students. They will also be responsible for security checks and a nighttime lockdown of the buildings.
With this change, there will no longer be multiple doors open at the schools and all entrances to New Fairfield Middle School will remain locked. This move is being made in response to the security audits that were performed earlier in the year.
Evening hours at the schools was found to be one of the district’s most deficient areas. Mr. Sbordone said of the switch, “To me, this is the start of educating the public that our schools are not open 24 hours.” There is a plan to move elementary evening activities to the secondary schools to funnel everyone through the same door and procedures.
NFHS New Courses Second Review: In a second review of two new courses for New Fairfield High School–Interior Design and What It Means to Be a Young American–principal Dr. Richard Sanzo answered questions about the courses. He explained that Ms. Karyn Barrere, who teaches in the Family and Consumer Science department, has developed a skeletal frame of the Interior Design course. It will include home design, plus societal and environmental choices that affect home design. It will also ask students to consider what makes home design so appealing in media. She also intends to engage the students in the building process with improvements going forward. Dr. Sanzo explained that, based on informal polling of the students, there will definitely be interest in this course.
Mr. Cipollone expressed enthusiasm for providing opportunities to students who may want to pursue opportunities, such as interior design, rather than go straight to a four-year college. “We really need to appreciate multiple intelligences” he said, and went on to say that the board would be happy to see the spaces that the students transform in the future. The board will vote on whether to adopt the two courses at their next meeting.
Subcommittee Meetings: In a review of the Business Operations/Resource Management subcommittee meeting, Mr. Sbordone reported that the budget is in line with expectations and with the level it was at last year. He explained that special education spending is holding steady, but will continue to need to be closely watched.
Mr. Rick Regan explained that the School Start Time Ad Hoc Committee is now an official board subcommittee. He will be serving as the chairman for the group, and board members Kathy Baker, Ed Sbordone, and Dominic Cipollone will serve as committee members. It was noted that the group was originally tasked with investigating a start time change for 2019-2020, but that is now considered too soon. “We’re exploring changing the start time,” Dr. Cosentino said. She went on to explain that there will be a lot of meetings and investigation, but stressed that, “We want to make sure that everyone is on board…no decision has been made…this is just a subcommittee that’s exploring this.”
In a liaison report for the Park and Rec Committee, Ms. Kimberly LaTourette explained that the town holiday light fight was a success. The group is looking into sponsors for next year. She also noted that the boat docks will be fixed in January. She explained that cooking will no longer be allowed at the snack shed at the town beach in the summertime. They are considering inviting food trucks or selling pre-packaged food.
In her chairman’s report, Ms. Katkocin thanked outgoing Business Manager, Craig McClain. She recalled all that the current board had moved forward on in the past year, including hiring a new superintendent, negotiating contracts, building projects, and more.
Dr. Cosentino, in her superintendent’s report, wished everyone a happy holiday season. She noted that she has started a leadership cadre of about 30 staff from among the buildings. They are going to work on establishing leadership skills. She is employing some of the curriculum from a doctorate class on educational leadership that she teaches at West Conn. She went on to say that she is heading up a team to work on the budget and is developing a communication plan for the budget. They plan to present the budget to board in January, but also to interested staff, especially since they will be reallocating staff based on changes of enrollment and need. Finally, she noted that the top administration is in the first round of hiring for the interim NFHS principal position.
Board Member Comments: In board member comments, everyone thanked Craig McClain for his time in the district.
Mr. Cipollone expressed dismay at a recent letter to Meeting House Hill School parents asking students to pay $200 to participate in an upcoming school play. He pointed out that the fee, to be paid by a total of 50 students, is a barrier, saying “Access to the arts is important.” He also implied that he thought the fee was exorbitant, pointing out that Immaculate students pay $100 to participate in their high school musical, while these children are in 3rd through 5th grades. “I don’t think we should be asking families to pay 200 dollars to put their kids in a school play.” he said. He went on to note that the recent MHHS band and chorus concert was amazing.
Mr. Regan reminded the public the Danbury Magnet applications are due in January. He also said that he had attended excellent programs for music and world language at NFHS. Though both were outstanding, he stressed that the auditorium is clearly in need of improvement, and that he is “…hoping it can be addressed soon.”
Ms. LaTourette said that she recently visited Consolidated and was pleased to meet new staff and attend holiday parties.
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for tonight, Thurs., Jan. 3, 7:00pm.
By Sarah Opdahl