Monroe school budget plan includes 5.85% hike

Photo of Brian Gioiele
Monroe Town Hall Offices at 7 Fan Hill Road in Monroe, Conn. on Monday May 13, 2013.

Monroe Town Hall Offices at 7 Fan Hill Road in Monroe, Conn. on Monday May 13, 2013.

Cathy Zuraw / Cathy Zuraw

MONROE — The board of education has approved a proposed 2021-22 fiscal year budget with a 5.85 percent hike.

The board at its meeting Tuesday voted 7-2, with board members David Ferris and Jeff Fulchino opposed to pass the proposed $61,923,067 spending plan to First Selectman Ken Kellogg’s desk — the next step in the town’s budget process.

“I do not see any fluff here,” school board member Jerry Stevens said. “Our charge as a board of education is to hire, set policy and set a budget. We can’t take a step back now.”

Ferris agreed that the budget was streamlined, but with the pandemic hurting so many people financially, he said he felt more reductions were necessary before the school board gave its final approval.

“This a difficult decision,” Ferris said. “The dilemma is that we need to meet the needs of the district, but we also must meet the needs of the taxpayers. This (number) is still too high.”

Fulchino said Monroe has the third highest mill rate in Fairfield County yet the fifth smallest grand list and the seventh smallest population, all of which means more financial pressure on taxpayers and small businesses.

“We are asking too much,” Fulchino said.

Salaries, according to Superintendent Joseph Kobza, represent 51 percent of the proposed increase. The board must also cover costs associated with the three furlough days taken by all unions last year — which saved the district some $527,000 for the current 2020-21 school year.

“That number needed to be made up in the current budget,” Kobza said, adding that Monroe was the only school district in the state where its employees accepted such a give back.

The proposed budget includes staff increases: a grade 6 teacher; a world language teacher, which would be shared between Jockey Hollow and Masuk High; a special education teacher for Masuk; a .25 special education teacher for Fawn Hollow Elementary; and a .25 district-wide English Language Learner teacher.

Kobza said the staffing requests do not include replacing all losses from last year’s budget request. In all, the first selectman and Board of Finance combined to reduce the education budget by some $1.5 million from the Board of Education-approved request for the 2020-21 school year.

Also lost was an elementary math coordinator, elementary science coordinator, a library media specialist at Stepney Elementary, two elementary teacher interventionists and an instructional leader of world language.

“What is also very important for people to understand is that after 10 years of declining enrollment, we have actually seen a pretty significant increase this year,” Kobza said. “In fact, our enrollment lies between the enrollment that existed between the years of 2014-15 and 2015-16. In those years, we had between 12 and 18 more teachers than we currently have.”

Several motions were passed assigning money for various programs and positions while eliminating the funds from other accounts to maintain a zero increase in the budget proposal.

The items added included $15,000 for the summer reading program, with a corresponding reduction in the custodial line item; $4,515 for a stipend for one math coordinator to work at all three elementary schools, with a corresponding reduction, again in the custodial line item; and $48,000 for interns at the three elementary schools. The corresponding reductions of the $48,000 came from substitute accounts ($28,000), grounds and maintenance ($13,000); $5,000 from OT activities accounts and $2,000 from the equipment/non-instructional plant account.

Board member Alan Vaglivelo voted to support the budget but noted his concern with class sizes at the elementary schools.

“I feel this budget did not address that,” Vaglivelo said. “We need to put out a budget the kids deserve, and let the taxpayers decide.”

Board member Nick Kapoor agreed, saying, "every Monroe voter should be allowed to vote on a proposal to fully fund the BOE budget. We believe we should get a shot at passing this budget at referendum, as is. The people should have the final say on what they believe the budget should be.”

Kapoor added that the board of education is at a “structural disadvantage because we can be cut by the first selectman and the board of finance before our budget goes before the people. If the BOF or first selectman cut our budget, they should propose what they want to cut.

“They have the easy job — cut a number and leave the rest to the BOE,” Kapoor added.

Kapoor said he also hopes a joint meeting can be set between the board of finance and board of education, so all members of the school board can have their voice heard in the process.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com