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School Board Approves a Budget with a 3.7% Spending Hike

The Monroe Board of Education approved a $53.3 million operating budget for fiscal year 2013-14. It includes full day kindergarten.

Monroe Board of Education members approved a $53.3 million operating budget with a 3.74% spending increase for fiscal year 2013-14 Monday night, after haggling over a $135,000 cut from Supt. of Schools James Agostine's proposal.

The cut was approved along party lines with Republicans supporting it and Democrats against any cuts.

"We have a chance to implement an even leaner budget, so it passes the first time," said Board of Education member Jeff Guttman, a Republican. Avoiding multiple budget referendums could ensure that no more than $135,000 is cut, he reasoned.

The proposal will go to First Selectman Steve Vavrek, then to the Board of Finance. After the Board of Finance acts on it and municipal expenditures, there will be a Town Meeting which will adjourn to a budget referendum vote.

Supt. of Schools James Agostine originally proposed a $53,486,069 education budget, representing a 3.99% increase.

"This budget is lean," Agostine said. "We have worked hard to get this budget in order. We reduced costs. I'm confident this budget will take us where we need to go."

The superintendent said the vast majority of the spending increase consists of contractual expenses that are out of the district's control. Salaries account for $501,824 of the increase, along with $490,480 in medical costs, $267,208 for transportation, $115,200 to sunset the medical retirement benefit and $156,075 for a negotiation reserve.

Because the medical reserve estimate is significantly lower than initially budgeted for, Agostine proposed using $300,000 for security improvements at the town's schools. He said the only other new expenditure would be $193,602 for full day kindergarten.

Monroe is one of only three area school districts without full day kindergarten, but Agostine said the most important reason to adopt it is because it's part of the new Common Core standards. Monroe's students would fall behind by 40-50% in curriculum compared to their counterparts in other schools who have full day kindergarten, he said.

The school board unanimously voted to have full day kindergarten next fall.

Cutting the Proposal

Board of Education member George King, a Republican, asked Agostine if he could cut his proposal by a quarter of a percentage point — or by $135,000, reducing it to the 3.74% increase.

Agostine said he could do it by not replacing two teachers who are retiring. The Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) Academy would be reduced from four sections to three for the sixth grade, increasing the average class size from 19 to 25 students.

Lee Crouch, a Democrat on the board, said she was "puzzled and disturbed" to hear a suggestion to cut the superintendent's proposal. "I think it's in our best interest to support the 3.99% budget," she said.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Susan Koneff, a former teacher, said there was a $1.2 million cut to the Board of Education's proposal three years ago, and it had increases of zero in each of the last two years. She said at some point, it will hurt the programs.

In light of the shooting at Sandy Hook, Koneff also asked the board to add one more guidance counselor for Monroe's three elementary schools. Currently there are two for over 1,000 children.  

King said he proposed a spending cut, because the lack of spending increases over past years make it hard to expect that the board would get a 3.99% increase this time around.

Republicans spoke of the importance of coming in lean enough with the proposal to avoid future cuts from multiple referendum defeats, while Democrats worried about larger class sizes.

Kelly Plunkett, a Democrat, said she read comments on the Monroe Parents Facebook Page expressing opposition to a budget with full day kindergarten if the gifted program doesn't move forward and class sizes don't go down.

But Punkett agrees with Republicans that referendum defeats will result in more cuts for education.

"We have to look at what's best for the district, not what's best for individual children," she said.

Mark Antinozzi, a Republican, said he used to teach classes with as many as 35 students at Harding High School, so STEM can teach classes of 25.

Dr. Alan Vaglivello, a Democrat, strongly opposes any increase in class sizes. "We already have the highest class sizes in our district reference group and this is going to get worse," he said. "It's sad that we're comparing ourselves to Harding High School."

Crouch made a motion to approve a budget with a 3.99% increase, but Board Secretary Mark Hughes, a Republican, proposed an amendment to cut $135,000 from Agostine's proposal. Both the amendment, then the motion passed along party lines.

Republican board members voting yes were Guttman, Hughes, Antinozzi, King and Vice Chairwoman Donna Lane. Democrats voting no were Crouch, Vaglivello and Plunkett.

QWERTY January 08, 2013 at 07:55 PM
Why would she make those comments if she were in favor of full-day K? Seems conflicting to me.
Walt January 08, 2013 at 08:34 PM
Why do we want to increase the student population? To spend more?!?
jim laguardia January 08, 2013 at 09:27 PM
Like I said it is just my opinion, but the kids get no education from the doors, windows, or cameras they get protection.... that should be part of the police department budget. again in my opinion
Steve Kirsch January 08, 2013 at 09:37 PM
Jim, you are correct in that Kelly did not support the 0.25% reduction.
jim laguardia January 08, 2013 at 09:45 PM
yay me!!! thanks
Steve Kirsch January 08, 2013 at 09:49 PM
Indymind, The only way that the contract can be renegotiated in the middle of the contract is if both parties agree and historically that has not happened. The teachers, which are the largest unit, will go into negotiations during the next school year for a contract to start in the 2014-15 school year. That is where the BOE and the Town (through the action or lack of action by the Town Council) will have a chance to get the best deal that they can given the state mandated process. When this process starts, I would suggest that you find a way to make your feelings and suggestions known to the BOE and other elected town officials.
Jennifer Aguilar January 08, 2013 at 10:01 PM
It's too bad you read an article and pick it to find something bad to say, even when it says no such thing. Kelly absolutely supports full day kindergarten, she has been advocating and talking to many people about it and how it is needed. She knows there are people who have concerns that they will not get what they themselves need at this time and are concerned of money going to full day. She was addressing that issue.
QWERTY January 09, 2013 at 04:16 AM
It does say something bad...namely Kelly Plunkett mentioning people who are willing to cut their noses off to spite their face. An "all or nothing" mentality isn't going to get these people what they want...not in Monroe. Kelly mentioning this led me to believe she supports their view. If she doesn't, so be it; I just don't see the value in adding this mention to the budget approval process.
Lisa B. January 09, 2013 at 05:13 AM
QWERTY - I'm likely one of the people Kelly defended. And no - I wouldn't "cut off my nose to spite my face." I don't consider myself to be worried about protecting a "special interest" unless the entire FH district is a special interest. I asked the BOE in an open meeting why we would be considering approving Full Day K without first addressing some very large existing class sizes in the mainstream grades. I won't vote No on the budget because Full Day K was approved at expense of other things - but I do feel we were baited and switched. We were told Full Day K could be achieved with no demonstrable effect on existing class sizes. Moments after the full day K vote, the BOE cut the budget which reduced two staff positions and drove up grade 6 class sizes by an set. of 6 students per section. I have to assume your kids attend Monroe El and not FHES - and enjoy significantly lower class sizes than their counterparts. Otherwise, you would likely share the concern that we are adding something without addressing that we are poorly providing for some pockets of the existing. I finally agree with Walt. Why encourage young families with children to move here - we can't accommodate the families we have now....Kelly was merely asking that question - that shows she was actually one of the only BOE members who listened or cared when I shared the concern that additional staffing resources should be used to address the disparity in district grade level sections. Not add new.
Nancy Bennet January 09, 2013 at 11:30 AM
Lisa, the article states that the increase in class size from 19 to 25 will be at 6th grade stem (bringing it to par with main campus 6th grade). Are there staff cuts proposed at fawn hollow?
Lisa B. January 09, 2013 at 12:51 PM
Nancy - For next year, not at this time. That damage was done and sustained the past three years. For example, last year, there were five (5) 3rd grade classes at FHES, that were then collapsed into four (4) for the current fourth grade. The budget document on monroeps.org (Human Resources) shows FH class sizes continue to be the largest in district and the difference is significant in most, if not all cases. It highlights the possibility that the FH full day K sections could be enrolled at 23 vs. 17 in the other schools - which just sets up another class of students by grade level to be significantly higher than their counterparts in other schools. I asked, if we were looking at adjusting something this year, why not first look at fixing damage done in prior years to class sizes elsewhere in lower grades. And if we say bringing class sizes in line at a grade level is a good thing - why aren't we doing it at all grades? I asked the BOE, in the context of full day K, to first consider and discuss, that there were some students still in extremely large classes as a result of prior years actions. Those students have to meet the common core too - are further behind in the catch up process - and deserve resources as much as anyone else. That concern was one Kelly was trying to ask her colleagues to consider before their vote. I felt I should clarify that Kelly does not oppose the concept of full day K as some suggest by her discussion prior to the vote.
Sheila D January 09, 2013 at 01:56 PM
Qwerty, sometimes, for the sake of brevity, an article does not contain all of the statements and might include just a portion of comments. If we watch the televised BoE meeting and that was all Plunkett said, I'll be right there with you. But, I have a feeling there were comments made before and/or after the statement that are not included in this article if she has supporters here defending her stand on full day K.
Rags January 09, 2013 at 02:17 PM
@Lisa B - I agree that the class sizes are too large at FH. Have you addressed this situation with other BOE people or just Kelly Plunkett? Is Kelly the lead person to talk with on this? Have you spoken to other BOE members? If so what have they said on this topic?
jim laguardia January 09, 2013 at 02:19 PM
The bait and switch you refer to is similar to my point that a number was floated out there and just happened to equal the retiring teachers salaries? The peg just seemed to fit to easily into the hole, And it appears at least one of the BoE members knew nothing about it,
Nancy Bennet January 09, 2013 at 02:48 PM
Lisa, fawn hollow class sizes have always been larger than Monroe El. class sizes: the explanation (exsuse?) is square footage, Monroe El. classrooms cannot accommodate more than 20 students. I think Stepney sizes are comparable to fawn hollow's most years. As for the increase in 4th grade numbers in the low to mid twenties, this has also been happening for quite some time
Lisa B. January 09, 2013 at 03:22 PM
Nancy - I know that we can go around the issue 1,000 times - in Monroe - we always do. Because the class sizes have creeped for years at FH - doesn't make it right. My original intent was to point out Ms. Plunkett was considering the concerns of a constituent that took the time to attend a BOE meeting and share the need to consider all students in all grade levels when adjusting programs. That she was mistakenly accused of opposing full day K. And that those parents with the concerns she was sharing - were being accused of lobbying for special interests. Class size matters. We all know that. More kids per room = less dedicated teacher time. Fewer students per room = more teaching time. At the elementary grades, a shift of + 6 students adds 2 entire reading groups to a classroom. That means in the smaller classes - they get through reading groups more times/week than in the larger classes. Students in smaller classes perform better against national, state and local benchmarks. After setting the record straight for Ms. Plunkett, my point was that as a district, we should be focused on ensuring that we provide similar opportunities across similar grade levels and restore the damage we've done - before we set up an additional program that will cut further into resources already stretched thin. I don't think the parents of a "K" class of 23 will find they have the same experience next year as their friends whose children find themselves in a room of 17.
James Wadsworth January 09, 2013 at 03:24 PM
Nancy - Monroe El class sizes can accommodation more than 20 students. There have been classes there over 25 before.
Nancy Bennet January 09, 2013 at 04:23 PM
Lisa, there was a recent article about Monroe El students ranking at the top on CMTs; do you happen to know if they outperformed their F.H. & Stepney piers across the board? I agree, BTW, 23 students in a K - 2 class is way too many (I would personally prefer half day K with under 20 students in class to a full day with 23 - least an hour of which is non academic anyway, lunch, recess, etc). And also, since we are on the subject, is there a way to find out how stem performed compared to main campus? James, could I asked how recently Monroe El. had 25 students in class?
QWERTY January 09, 2013 at 05:13 PM
If you feel as if you were duped, that's one thing. The fact that you won't vote 'No' contradicts what Kelly stated at the meeting. You are NOT holding hostage the full-day K program. I agree that perhaps more was said at this meeting than is written. I don't know the details, this is an educated guess; but I assume the cost vs. benefit of attempting to lower the overall class sizes in Monroe isn't as great as upgrading the K program to full-day. Either way, I don't see why the two should relate. Attempting to lower class sizes is in every budget, year after year. Upgrading the K program is a semi one time deal.
James Wadsworth January 09, 2013 at 05:29 PM
Some of the classes went up to 26 a year or so ago. This year a few classes are about 23. I think 3rd grade has the highest. The pre-school typically has about 35 students. I'm not sure how pre-school is broken up. You can get these numbers by looking online at the Monroe PS website.
Lisa B. January 09, 2013 at 05:33 PM
Nancy - Yes - ME outperforms SE and FH in % above proficiency in all grade levels tested last year - except one section of one grade level (which was a tenth of a point). If you look at the differences in raw scores - they are staggering. For example in Grade 3 math - ME students scored 22 points higher than FH and almost 26 points higher than SE. In writing their raw scores were roughly 40 points higher than their counterparts. In grade 5 - the points were more than double digits in every category except writing at SE was only 9 points lower. GR 4 scores - while higher in % above proficiency did show some variation in raw scores with FH and SE demonstrating higher scores in most categories - (though by 2 or 3 points in most cases - not 41). Driving up the class sizes at SE and FH has made a difference - the numbers are there. I think though, they group all grades 6-8 as JH so I am not sure how to analyze those.
Walt January 09, 2013 at 06:04 PM
or the principal there is better at cooking the books...
Alex January 09, 2013 at 06:39 PM
I think its always important to put these budget discussions into perspective with some our neighboring towns. Here is the 2011 - 2012 Net per pupil spending per town figures released by the CT Dept of Education: Towns by Name (per pupil spending with total school population): Easton - $15,738.62, 1,509 students Monroe - $14,025.19, 3,661 students Newtown - $12,381.39, 5,423 students Oxford - $11,810.54, 2,216 students Shelton - $12,031.10, 5,367 students Seymour - $12,511.12, 2,424 students Trumbull - $13,014.62, 6,799 students
Indymind January 09, 2013 at 06:55 PM
Thank you Alex, it's gets this discussion back to the root issue with a much better metric. We have plenty of money available per student to ensure a great education for them. The issue is how we spend it and that gets bogged down every year in ying yang detail. If we ensure there is enough money, looks like there is, hold the budget as is. Then the difficult task of how to spend it to ensure the kids don't lose out can begin. Somehow each year we can't get to that, despite hard working and well meaning folks. Needs a truly creative rethink. Look on the bright side at least we have all this money available. It could be a lot worse.
Sheila D January 09, 2013 at 09:20 PM
Alex and Indymind, it would be great if someone could do the same comparison of municipal budget spending per resident as well as what it covers. There's been interesting mentions of lighting, security and other operational items and what 'side of the budget' they truly belong to. Are maintenance, security, sanitation, plowing, vehicles, insurance, etc... part of every municipalities budget, or are they part of their school budget? Our previous Superintendent didn't get along with the First Selectman and shared services was not a discussion, yet it might be par for the course in other towns and just assumed into the municipal budget. To truly make a comparison between towns and per pupil spending, etc..., it's crucial that the same items are being compared. I can't just read the numbers as posted without knowing what went into them, and if they encompass the same as our counterparts.
Indymind January 09, 2013 at 09:44 PM
Sheila D , very good points. I totally support transparent apples to apples comparisons. One would hope everyone involved and responsible for the budgets would seek those factual comparisons. Unfortunately at least in our past, comparisons are constructed and made to fit a pre-existing conclusion. Then the arguments start and folks entrench. Like I said creative overhaul of process is required.
Rick Strong January 09, 2013 at 10:13 PM
I heard from a school administrator that Kelly does NOT speak for the Board of Education.
Alex January 09, 2013 at 10:29 PM
I 100% agree Sheila. I often wonder the same thing. We should all expect transparency from both sides of the budget. The State dept of Education crunches those numbers, so I would assume that they are handled the same between towns. Here's the State's explanation of NCE, which is just the total money spent in a given town on a school (to get NCEP, you divide this number by the number of students in the town): "Net current expenditures (NCE) are calculated as defined in Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-261(a)(3). NCE includes all current public elementary and secondary expenditures from all sources, excluding reimbursable regular education transportation, tuition revenue, capital expenditures for land, buildings and equipment, and debt service. Public Act 11-179 Section 5 eliminated from statute the provision for the inclusion in NCE of the principal portion of debt service for NCE eligible items. For many districts, this represents debt incurred for certain minor school building repairs and roof replacements. "
jim laguardia January 09, 2013 at 10:52 PM
No one said she did.... Except for people who for some reason have an weird obsession with hiding behind screen names and talking bad about her
Sheila D January 10, 2013 at 01:45 PM
Mr. Strong, I find it appalling that you would peg your blatant personal agenda on a school administrator on a blog such as this. No administrator in their right mind would ever speak in the manner in which your comment was intended, about an elected official, let alone a Board of Education member. If you did have the opportunity to speak with an administrator about a Board member concerning this topic, it would be nice for the rest of us following this story to understand the context in which the conversation was held, as well as their full comment as it is incredulous in the manner which you delivered it.

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