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.