On the evening of January 21, Board members discussed plans to eliminate positions that may have an effect on student opportunities. At issue is the vague nature of the budget line item language, but also the clarity of communication among the administration and board members.
In the school’s 43-page proposed budget, available at Newfairfieldschools.org, there are three staff reductions proposed at the High School, one position at the Middle School, and two positions at Consolidated School. The budget alludes to the shifting of teachers to accommodate class size enrollment, but does not detail the exact positions that would be eliminated. Intentionally imprecise, administrators choose to leave the specific details unmentioned, in part because they know it will alarm staff, but also because the overall staffing is a changing picture. Referring to publicly discussing specific eliminations, Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino said “when you say what you’re thinking, people get very nervous.”
While acknowledging the evolving nature of school staffing, some board members questioned why they were not privy to the information. Board member Kimberly LaTourette pressed the point that there is a current plan in place for Consolidated staff reductions involving one of the Physical Education teachers, though she had been told that there wasn’t a plan for particular positions at the January 5 Budget Workshop. Furthermore, she was not happy to have heard about the plan from a parent. “I’m disappointed to be honest, in our lack of transparency…If you already had a plan in place, I wish I had heard that from you, when I specifically asked a question, instead of hearing it from parents,” she said.
Piggybacking on the sentiment, Ms. Kathy Baker wondered why a staffing change that would affect student opportunities was not spelled out more clearly to the board members. She pointed out that the addition of a second gym teacher was seen as a very positive step when it was added last year and questioned why the thinking had detoured. Both Ms. Baker and Ms. LaTourette wondered how reducing physical education will impact all students, including special education students whose opportunities had advanced.
Frankly, Ms. Baker expressed discontent at not being made aware of larger programming changes, “This year there are organizational changes that are happening that are not clear.” Dr. Cosentino processed their comments, but stressed, “we’re not hiding anything.” In a prickly moment, Dr. Cosentino told Ms. LaTourette repeatedly to “Take a breath” while she was making a point, which prompted Ms. Baker to implore Dr. Cosentino repeatedly to, “Just let her finish.” Ms. LaTourette responded by saying, “I don’t need to be interrupted when I’m speaking.”
Some board members took a centrist approach to the issue, with Mr. Dominic Cipollone expressing the opinion that, if enrollment is declining, it does make sense to reduce the staff, as long as the kids are getting what they need. While others, like Ms. Stephanie Strazza, emphasized the importance of communication, “As a public representative, from our side, if we were to know about something like that,” such as the position being cut, they may vote to pass a budget without realizing its implications. And Chair Peggy Katkocin cautioned fellow board members to “be very careful about…overhearing conversations, parents very often, teachers, they misunderstand…”
Dr. Cosentino said, “Until the budget is done, everything is fluid. All of the administrators know that.” She also said, “My intention is never to hide things from you or not share things…when we do the budget it is my job to present you the most fiscally responsible budget,” explaining, “When I went into Consolidated there was a lot of extra time…I took away that PE teacher [for the Middle School, as previously reported] and everybody still had everything…teachers were not teaching their full case load.” Her underlying statement was that, “there has to be some trust…you have to understand that we work here to do what’s right for every child and every taxpayer.”
Dr. Richard Sanzo, Director of Finance and Operations, said that he couldn’t think of any further areas in the budget that would impact student opportunity in this way, but that he would go through the budget this week and have any additional information for the board members available at their Jan. 28 Budget Workshop. One caveat he forwarded was the uncertainty in position reductions at NFHS. Courses will be chosen in the next month, which will drive the decisions regarding cuts. He pointed out that last year, for example, there weren’t enough students to warrant offering an orchestra class at the school and that class was eliminated, which impacted staffing. Another point to consider are the potential retirement notices that the administration will receive. In reality, he said, “there are going to be continuing to be changes over the next several months and even over the summer.”
There was one other budget question asked by board member Rick Regan regarding the cost of rebuilding the school’s website, which has been discussed, but is not currently in the budget. Comparing the site with comparable schools in the area, he pointed out that the website is extremely dated and not mobile-ready. Dr. Karen Fildes, Director of Technology and Communications, said that she is collecting estimates for a rebuild and expects that it will cost approximately $15K for initial fees, with an expected $5K to $8K yearly going forward. The board will discuss adding these figures to the budget.
Dr. Sanzo suggested that the “Workshop would be a great opportunity to bring items forward” for the final budget, hoping that the board will approve it in early February. However, later, board member Ed Sbordone said that considering that the “numbers are already out there, altering it or going up would be tough.”
High School Math News – The district is continuing to revamp the K-12 math program following continued years of remarkably low math performance. To that aim, High School Principal James D’Amico announced plans to hold mandatory math workshops in the next academic year. Mr. D’Amico assured some BOE members that their repeated calls for holding math every day will be achieved with this switch, at least for the students who most clearly need the extra time.
Mr. D’Amico laid out a grim picture of only half of NFHS students meeting standardized test math benchmarks, with over 250 students definitely in need of intervention. “Obviously we can do better than that,” he said. Next year, three discrete math workshop courses–Algebra I, II, and Geometry–will increase their time spent on the subject, from 200 minutes a week to 300 minutes per week. In order to find the extra time, students will be spending 40 minutes of their study hall period in a math workshop. Mr. D’Amico pointed out that students will receive credit toward graduation for the workshops, where they wouldn’t have earned credit previously during study hall. The credits will go toward their electives.
With a 15-student limit in each workshop, the groups will be personalized and data-driven. Contrary to the underutilized current math lab offerings, the students would be placed in workshops according to the course that they are taking, rather than grouped in with students at a variety of levels. Special education students will be attending the workshops, or not, in accordance with their IEPs.
BOE members stepped in to contest the school’s plan to allow students to optout if they meet the PSAT benchmark in the fall, receive a C+, the teacher approves, and the parents approve. Several members would rather the students maintain a B, rather than a C+. Mr. Cipollone, a proponent of exposing students to daily math, suggested that he believes a C+ is too low a bar. Ms. Baker acknowledged that the school is attempting to reward the students for their hard work, to which Mr. D’Amico replied “we do want to include some flexibility.” In the end, Ms. Baker agreed with Mr. Cipollone that a grade of C+ is too low.
“How do we know 100% that this will work? We don’t. It’s new.,” Mr. D’Amico quipped. But in playing the long game, he imagines that having consistency is a positive, plus the shift “gives us more instructional time.”
Mr. D’Amico said the school does anticipate some challenges, especially in the scheduling of electives. In discussions with the Guidance Department, he stated that switching courses may be harder, as the counselors would lose the play of study hall in manipulating schedules. They also expect a lot of hand scheduling to occur to try to help slot these students into their courses. He went on to state that this move “could box out some courses in the schedule” for some students. But the administrators are willing to make the concession, as the students may be “giving up something that they want, to make sure that they get what they need.”
The school has developed a plan to launch the program next year with existing staff, explaining that the entire math department will be prepared to take turns stepping in to help the students with pre-teaching, re-teaching, and problem-solving practice. There will be 17 sections of math workshops offered.
Dr. Cosentino praised the NFHS administrators and faculty, who she says are all “rising up” to the challenge of redirecting the math program. The math “staff need to commended for really understanding the urgency of moving forward,” she said. There will be a presentation at the next BOE meeting on the math self-study that the district has recently completed.
Superintendent Goals Check-In – In a mid-year check in on goals for the district, Dr. Cosentino pointed out the many ways that she and her staff are advancing in key areas for the schools. Many goals are general, but some pertain to her role as superintendent. She cites the work on the math program, the reevaluation of assessment tools, embedding more SAT preparation into the NHFS curriculum, and developing a common curriculum template as furthering student achievement and high-quality instruction. She points to a renewed focus on appropriate professional development and a great amount of social-emotional learning programs being engaged throughout all of the schools as a success. She is happy with work that is being completed to promote a positive school culture and a new marketing plan for the schools and town.
There were some questions from board members about the five goals that Dr. Cosentino chose to be evaluated on, though the particular goals were not disclosed. One was her completion of a fiscally-responsible budget. When asked why she chose the budget to be evaluated on, she admitted that any goal would be fine and on choosing the five goals, she said “It is hard to decide you know? Honestly.” In the end, most board members agreed that any of the goals would be fine. “As long as the district is improving, we’re all on the same page.” Mr. Cipollone said. Board members completed a mid-year evaluation of the superintendent in Executive Session at this meeting.
Buildings Projects Update – In a brief report, Dr. Sanzo explained that the programming work is gearing up. In February, JCJ Architects will be holding focus groups throughout the district to gather thoughts and develop plans. The focus groups will be coordinated through the Permanent Building Committee.
Dr. Sanzo noted that Mr. D’Amico and some NFHS faculty members joined the architects to visit new highs schools in Guilford and Madison. They wanted to view modern buildings to help get a sense of the opportunities that are available to impact the learning environment. The elementary administrators and staff will be following suit with a visit to the new elementary schools in Sandy Hook and New Haven.
In subcommittee news, Mr. Sbordone reminded everyone that this continues to be “a very tight budget year,” especially in light of rising special education spending.
Mr. Regan gave on update on the Magnet School in Danbury, explaining that the relationship with the school may be changing in the future. Danbury continues to be in desperate need for space and are thinking of possibly turning it into a regular school. The Magnet School has had enrollee challenges in recent years, with local towns accepting spots at the school that families ended up opting out of, due to transportation issues. This year there are 40 empty seats at the school. New Fairfield continues to send 18 students, though one student recently opted to leave the school.
Ms. LaTourette, who serves as the Park and Recreation liaison, explained that the group is discussing the possibility of a new beach house at the Town Beach. In other news, they are looking for seasonal employees, boat slip fees were recently sent, and the rates for summer day camp and before and after camps have increased.
In her Superintendent’s Report, Dr. Cosentino said that the School Safety and Security group is finalizing the Director of School Security job description. They will consider both internal and external applications once the position is posted. She also explained that there will be an upcoming Leadership Cadre workshop with the BOE. Finally, she noted that Easter is incorrectly marked on the district calendar. Easter is on April 12, not April 19.
In board member comments, Ms. Strazza reminded people that the increase in the school’s budget does not equal the increase to their taxes. She stressed that a final percentage will come from the Board of Finance. Mr. Cipollone asked parents to take an active role in their children’s lives, not only to help them prepare for school, but to check on them and “look at their social media, take their devices away…let’s control the info that they are receiving.” Mr. Regan thanked the math department and his fellow board members for giving the staff a clear direction to follow on reversing math course. And Ms. LaTourette thanked all administrators for their extensive work on the budget.
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thurs., Feb. 6, 7pm.
By Sarah Opdahl