Though education spending has remained relatively flat over the past two years, Supt. of Schools James Agostine says Monroe has gotten bang for its buck as the school board finds savings and stretches its dollars. Recent statistics of 44 zip codes rank Monroe as 23rd in median home values and 17th out of 23 towns in per pupil expenditures, but 5th in the percentage of students proficient on testing scores, according to the superintendent.
However, with average increases of 3% and inflation rising by over 8% over time, Agostine says the district is going backwards, while doing more with less to keep up.
First Selectman Steve Vavrek's town budget proposal includes a Board of Education operating budget of $53,048,399, a 3.14% or $1.6 million spending increase from the current fiscal year.
The Board of Education had approved a budget with a 3.72% spending increase, but Vavrek transferred $300,000 for school security over to the town-side. Agostine said he supports the move, so long as the money is spent the way it is intended.
"The proposed budget significantly enhances the core academic program by implementing full day kindergarten and maintaining class sizes," Agostine said. "It provides support for all students in meeting the new national Common Core State Standards. It addresses the unfunded mandate for staff evaluations."
Through negotiations with seven employee unions, Agostine said the Board of Education has gotten important concessions, including a one-time payment of around $345,000 for limited exposure for teachers' medical retirements, saving an estimated $6 million in future obligations.
A portion of the cost to sunset the benefits to be paid this year is $115,200. There is also a negotiation reserve of $156,075.
After freezes on teachers' salaries, Agostine said raises will kick in this year. The budget includes $501,824 in contractual obligations for salaries.
Transportation costs add $267,208 to the budget. The plan includes $193,602 for full-day kindergarten and a $490,480 medical reserve.
Agostine the request for operating expenses actually represents a 2.66% increase, because around $592,000 in enterprise funds that were used to supplement the current budget are not there anymore.
State legislators had said they would keep the education cost sharing formula, which is used to factor in how much state aid districts get, flat, according to Agostine. He said the district goes for grants at every opportunity to lessen the burden on town taxpayers.
Student enrollment continues to decline and the superintendent said the trend is expected to continue over the next decade.
"We're keeping up with this enrollment decline," Agostine said.
He said the district has been reducing staffing positions, but added it will change course if the enrollment trends change.
The move to full day kindergarten results in staffing reductions.
The district would cut 6.4 full time staff positions and add in 4.5 positions for full day kindergarten, factoring into a $283,914 reduction — with $626,281 in cuts and $345,367 in additions, according to Agostine's presentation. That includes elimination of six non-certified and one permanent substitute positions, and an estimated $40,000 savings in transportation.
He said continuing with half day kindergarten would result in cuts of 4.7 certified staff positions, six non-certified and one permanent substitute for a reduction of $477,816.
Out of 23 towns in Fairfield County, Agostine said only three, Monroe, Newtown and Shelton do not have full day kindergarten. He added that studies show children in half day kindergarten will be 40% behind students who took full day as they enter first grade.