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At their Thursday, 1/7 regular meeting, the New Fairfield Board of Education spent a large amount of time discussing the proposed budget and heard repeated praise regarding two Physical Education teachers whose positions are currently slated for elimination. In addition, the BOE learned that 47% of the district’s students are opting to remote learn with 25% studying at home from Consolidated, approximately 40% at MHHS and NFMS, and 71% at NFHS. Assistant Superintendent Ms. Julie Luby said that remote learning is now “running smoothly” and, for many families given the high Covid-19 spread in town, it has largely settled into a “new normal.”

The aforementioned PE teachers, Mr. Jack Hudak of Meeting House Hill School, and Mr. Anthony Muratore, of New Fairfield Middle School, spoke eloquently in public comment in defense of their PE programs. Several BOE members questioned the logic of cutting the two positions throughout the meeting and pushed back against bigger areas of expansion in the budget, especially in technology.

With PE hit by budget closures last year as well, Hudak and Muratore made the case to keep their departments intact, detailing one reason after another that students would benefit from fully-staffed programs. Beyond the need to meet state-mandated requirements or recommendations, they pointed to many improvements that have been implemented in recent years that would fall apart without adequate staffing, such as the student-loved NFMS Sport Ed program that Muratore pointed out that the BOE had effusively praised only one year before. He remembered that, at the presentation, the BOE asked what resources the PE staff could use in support of the program–now Muratore says he’s “simply asking that you put an end to the cuts in this department.”

Acknowledging that the administrators and BOE have to make tough decisions, Hudak and Muratore bristled at the notion that recess or movement breaks could be considered a replacement for certified PE instruction. BOE member Ms. Kimberly LaTourette agreed, saying “I can sing at recess, but I’m not going to call it Music Education and I can take sidewalk chalk and draw on the pavement and I’m not going to call that Art Education. We can’t call movement breaks and go noodle Physical Education.” Muratore and Hudak pointed out the importance of both physical and mental activity, especially as the children of New Fairfield are going through a remarkably difficult period in their lives. There were repeated references by the faculty and board members to consider teaching “the whole child” in reconsidering the cuts to the program.

When Superintendent Dr. Pat Cosentino brought up the fact that board members had some issues with the use of cafeteria space for the NFMS program last year as part of the reason for scaling back the program, LaTourette reminded her that class size and location, in addition to decreased staff, were the primary reason that there were issues, not the program. “I hate that we have staff come in and we glow about things that they are doing and we say how great it is and then we turn it around to say that the board wasn’t happy with it,” LaTourette said. She went on to question the state mandates and how the schools can feasibly meet those–even with, for example at MHHS, plans to have PE teachers push into Social Studies classes to teach Health–with such a small staff. Cosentino acknowledged her point, but said, “I am not arguing that this is not important…so please no one on this call think that I don’t think that Physical Education is not important. We just have to pass a budget.”

A vocal supporter of keeping the PE positions, BOE member Ms. Kathy Baker came to the meeting prepared with a list of potential cuts that many of her board members agreed should be discussed further, from cutting administrators, secretarial staff, and technicians to a newly proposed second gifted & talented teacher, possibly stipend or co-curricular positions, and more. Plans to bump up the technology budget by a large percent are in question by many board members, who are signaling that there may not be support for pricey upgrades to the NFHS computer lab at this time or continuing the financial support for one-to-one computing for elementary students. Necessary during the pandemic–district administrators recently said that they would like to support one-to-one computing beginning in kindergarten.

There were also calls for other areas that could be trimmed, such as Ms. Samantha Mannion’s request to discuss the marketing budget, saying it “does not make any sense to me at all” to keep money in that line item. She also questioned the large amount of money that’s slated for the new math curriculum, pointing out that she has seen the math curriculum flip four times in the last several years and it has never worked. “I’m sitting here at this point wondering if maybe the curriculum is not the problem,” she said, referring to New Fairfield’s students’ consistently weak math scores.

Interesting ideas to court were floated by BOE member Mr. Greg Flanagan who posed the possibility of going to the Teachers’ Union to postpone raises for a year. He also asked that administrators identify a dozen possible items to cut instead of PE and music positions, which fellow board members applauded. Cosentino said that they will create this list and also noted that they will put numbers to Baker’s many suggested cuts.

There was also a good amount of discussion regarding the music department’s MHHS band teacher cut and the plan to shift teaching responsibilities for the NFHS and NFMS music department teachers. Cosentino provided the BOE with an overview of the staff and their responsibilities, but board members asked her to supply the course offerings as well to better help them fully understand the situation that is being presented in the budget. They also asked to have in school and before and after school courses delineated. In addition, they would like to know which classes or study periods students would be pulled from at NFMS in order to fit music classes into their schedules.

BOE Chair Ms. Peggy Katkocin thanked the public for attending this and other recent budget meetings and giving their input. She explained the budget will remain fluid for some time and that tough decisions will need to be made. She went into detail about the fine line that the BOE will be riding between providing the funds necessary for the school and watching rising costs for the taxpayers, especially in light of the large debt service fees that will be going into effect for the new school buildings. This is “not something the board enters into lightly,” she said.

There was a presentation on a proposed Transition Program for special education students ages 18 to 21, which would entail help with providing vocational training, navigating post-secondary education, and/or offering general life skills. This is a service that the district is mandated to provide for any students that require them and that the district is currently outsourcing to nearby schools at a hefty price tag. Pupil Personnel Services Supervisor Ms. Melissa Busnel explained that the plan will be to base the program at the Danbury campus of Naugatuck Valley Community College. A net savings to the district, the program will require hiring a special education teacher and at least two paraprofessionals, plus will involve some transportation and instructional supply costs.

In an update on the two new buildings, Director of Finance and Operations Dr. Richard Sanzo was excited to report that the new 3D model of the Consolidated Early Learning Center and Meeting House Hill School will be very helpful in finalizing many details of the project. He said that there are also plans for the outdoor site, but that they are not as sophisticated as the interior models. Sanzo also explained that there are several meetings occurring to prepare for upcoming town presentations for zoning and other committees. On 1/26, the Permanent Building Committee will welcome BOE members to view the new high school’s Design Development working plans.

In the public portion of the meeting, there were a host of comments of support for Hudak and Muratore, with students ranging from 5th grade to post-graduate work who were all taught or coached by one or both of these teachers. They spoke of the importance of PE and of the two as going above and beyond not just as teachers, but as mentors. College student Mr. Nick Dimyan talked about his time with Muratore as his coach affectionately, likening “Mur,” who has kept in touch, to an older brother.

After the public comment was complete, Baker pointed out that a large number in the over 130-person Zoom meeting were students–many of whom had signed on with their first initial-Hudak/Muratore-last name. Several BOE members expressed gratitude that so many community members are taking part in the budget process. LaTourette said she is proud of “New Fairfield for pulling together and participating,” going on to say, “I’m just disappointed that our leaders–and I have a hard time believing that it’s coming from all of our administrators–even have some of these positions on the budget to be proposed as cuts…I had a not right feeling about this budget from the first time I saw it…” Katkocin noted the articulation with which all current and former students spoke, saying “I can see everybody is very passionate” and “You have been heard.”

The next Board of Education Budget Workshop will be held on Wednesday, 1/13, 7:00 p.m. The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, 1/21, 7:00 p.m.

By Sarah Opdahl