From Mayoral Candidates, a Heated Discourse on Education
NEWINGTON - The town will need to collaborate with both the Board of Education and its neighboring municipalities in order to see its school district through to the opening of a $2 million high school STEM academy deferred by unfilled instructor positions, as well as the implementation of a long sought upgrade to the middle school World language curriculum, said Democratic Mayoral nominee Terry Borjeson in an education platform released Thursday morning.

       In his statement-the second of the white paper platforms promised in lieu of a public debate with incumbent Mayor Roy Zartarian-Borjeson lamented the unused aerospace and biomedical labs at NHS, while pointing to the success of their middle school counterparts at John Wallace and Martin Kellogg.

       “Newington’s STEM Academies at John Wallace and Martin Kellogg Middle Schools prepare our students for high-paying careers in Aerospace, Engineering, Bio-Medical and other fields. But the education must not stop there,” Borjeson wrote.

       Opening the academies has been a stated priority of both campaigns, but the two sides disagree on how much funding the Board needed to fill the positions necessary to staff them.

       The latest Board budget under the current Republican Majority constituted a 0.3 percent increase, and the Board opted, in its adjustments-to reduce from Superintendent Bill Collins’ stated 2.49 percent baseline-to defer the positions in order to avoid further staff layoffs. The district still lost four teachers in the process.

       “There is a lack of willingness by the Republicans to understand, cooperate and build a relationship with the Board of Education through proper negotiations,” Borjeson wrote. “They are willing to settle for diminished schools in order to sell themselves as fiscally restrained, and as a result have fostered an adversarial relationship with the board and our schools.”

       Throughout budget deliberations, Republicans have contended that the push to come in lean was being driven by uncertainty regarding how the town’s municipal aid revenue will take shape. With the recent movement of a bipartisan budget at the Senate level, Newington is looking at a reduction in that area, but at a level significantly lower than the $15 million Governor Malloy’s emergency executive order would have cost the town.

       “We have no problem with providing a responsible level of funding to the schools,” Zartarian wrote in a press release. “At the same time, we must balance the schools’ needs-and wishes-as presented in its annual budget request against current fiscal reality. In the much-belated state budget now likely to be adopted, Newington is losing almost $876,000 in state aid. That figure includes a loss of $649,190 in school aid funding.”

       Zartarian pointed to the 2016 establishment of a non-lapsing surplus account that allows the Board to retain up unspent funds up to the equivalent of 1 percent of its operating budget-the maximum permitted by state law-as well as an older policy that allows the Board to spend any health benefits credit within the given fiscal year. Any related funds that remain at year’s end go back to the town General Fund.

       “Through these actions, the Board has cash assets of almost $1.8 million above its appropriation,” Zartarian wrote. “The Town Council does not have the ability to tell the Board of Education how to spend its money. If we did, the STEM academy at the High School would have been opened.”

       But the Board no longer has the $1.8 million, because fiscal constraints prompted the use of the surplus to cover the cost of staff salaries-a recurring expense that will leave a budgetary “hole” to start the next year, since the Board’s baseline operating budget has failed to keep up with expenditures, Collins said.

       During budget deliberations, the Board had hoped to have an additional $1.8 million in operating funds to spend for that purpose-which would have guaranteed the money for future years-and offered to, in exchange, buy the St. Mary’s School building and tentatively move its offices into it as an offset to the cost of the Town Hall renovation project.

       In his statement, Zartarian referred to the proposal as a “foolhardy quest”, pointing to what he feels were the inevitable costs of renovating the building for both environmental remediation and ADA code compliance.

       But Collins said that the idea spawned from Zartarian’s stated objective of keeping the Town Hall project costs within $25 million. He said in conversations several weeks ago that the Board had offered to cover the renovation costs by offering $1 million of its own CIP money.

       Council Republicans responded to a request for a $625,000 transfer from the Board’s CIP fund-to cover the hiring of STEM teachers, as well as last minute costs for state mandated special education services-with a proposed Memorandum of Understanding that would have seen the Board front projected health benefit surpluses, with the promise of a transfer at midyear, as permitted by the Charter.

       The two sides hit a snag in discussions, when a dispute arose over whether the Board was being asked to operate in deficit-through the budgeting of funds it does not yet have-which is prohibited by state Statute, and Board CFO Lou Jachimowicz reported recently that the surplus actually came in at about half of what was projected.

       Getting those academies up and running is imperative to offsetting the cost of magnet school tuition, as implementing the district’s vision for STEM education will provide parents with an incentive to keep students in-district, Borjeson said.

       To a similar end, the district would benefit from providing a universal pre-K program, he wrote.

       “Under Democrat Majority Town Councils, Newington was a state leader in STEM studies,” Borjeson wrote. “Under the last Democratic Majority budgets, there was sufficient funding to cover school board contractual obligations.”

       But it isn’t fair to lay the blame on the Republican Majority of the past two years, since prior years saw staff reductions, said Republican Board candidate Danielle Drozd.

       “They’ve been cutting teachers long before the Republicans took over,” Drozd said.

       She pointed to the district’s elimination of its gifted and talented enrichment program-cut from the middle school level amidst budget deliberations for the 2016/2017 fiscal year as the Board worked to come down to a Council approved 0.5 percent increase.

       Collins said that the elimination of its high school counterpart in 2014/2015 was a Board decision, but one made in considering NHS’s plethora of AP course offerings and a consensus that the program was not as effective as it could have been.

       “I agree that in the high school, it’s probably less necessary,” Drozd said.

       The lost staff positions-five that year, according to budget breakdowns posted on the NPS website-were due to attrition, and were less consequential because of declining enrollment Collins said.

       As of this past October, however, enrollment was 68 students over the projected 4,033, according to a report given by NPS Chief of Staff Stephen Foresi at the Board’s October 11 meeting.

       With the attrition driven loss of 10 staffers since last year, the district is seeing class sizes balloon to 23 and 24 across second grade sections at Anna Reynolds, and 26 and 27 at John Wallace and Martin Kellogg Middle Schools.

       “The budgets we pass have serious consequences for how schools operate,” said Democratic Board incumbent Josh Shulman during the October 11 meeting. “Over and over again we hear ‘you cried wolf, and nothing happens.’ Well something happened.”

       While some of the higher class sizes reported are certainly not optimal, teachers do find a way to manage, said Drozd, who has taught for both West Hartford Public Schools and CREC. While she has had every volume from 15-16 students to the 29 she teaches in her AP math class, Drozd said that districts throughout the state are wrestling with similar challenges due to budget constraints

       She says she would like to see the Board find solutions to that issue-among others-within the scope of its existing budget, and suggested exploring the possibility of redistricting in order to create more of a balance between schools in town that currently have lower class sizes.

       “There are ways to solve this problem without spending money,” Drozd said.

       While redistricting has been an option Collins keeps in his back pocket, he noted Monday that he prefers to steer clear of that approach if possible, given the level of disruption that would be caused by such a change.

       Drozd stopped short of presenting it as the sure solution, but said that it may need to at least be looked at.

       “It’s not a good situation, but is it fair for kids at Anna Reynolds to have huge class sizes, while other kids have smaller class sizes?” Drozd said. “It reaches a point where it’s either that, or you raise taxes. There comes a time where you have to make those tough decisions.”

       “It wouldn’t work in this case because we don’t have enough teachers anywhere. Moving a problem isn’t recommended,” Collins said.

       Drozd took aim at other budget line items-expenditures she feels could have been put toward avoiding teacher layoffs.

       She pointed to past years’ enlistment of four instructional coaches-she says she reached out to the State Department of Education to confirm that it is not a mandate-as well as the purchase of a Gator for running equipment between the district’s buses.

       While the instructional coaches are not a specific requirement under state statute, policy enacted in 2013 mandates that districts offer regular professional development-to the tune of 1800 hours per year-that includes 1-on-1 mentoring opportunities.

       “It is one of the most cost effective ways to deal with job-embedded professional development,” Collins said of the instructional coaches.

       Collins said that the positions have since been reverted to fill classroom teacher roles.

       Drozd said that similar outcomes can be achieved by having teachers engage in peer to peer mentorship-possibly guided by those that have received training in the past-while seeking those within the community with relevant professional experience to provide additional support for free. She says she reached out to the district in the past to offer her own services for that purpose.

       Collins said that the district would be hard pressed to find enough individuals willing to make a similar offer, and that the process would still have to be managed to ensure professional development is up to state standards.

       As for the Gator, the purchase was made as part of a move to maintain the district’s school buses in-house, as opposed to sending each of the 60 vehicles to DATTCO four times a year to the tune of $38,000, Collins said. It’s used to carry barrels of motor oil and lubricant between vehicles, he said.

       “The savings from going in-house more than pays for the Gator,” Collins said.

       Though Drozd agreed that taking vehicle maintenance in-house was the right move, she still questioned the Gator purchase, stating that she feels the work could have been performed without it while the funds were directed elsewhere.