Proposed Council/Board MOU Asks That Board Surplus Go First to Cover STEM, Special Ed.
NEWINGTON - The Town Council has asked the Board of Education to commit its projected health benefits surplus to help cover the hiring of two teachers for the high school STEM academies, as well as around $400,000 in special education overages, with an expressed commitment to transfer any shortfall at the Town Charter-permitted halfway point of the fiscal year.

       The special meeting vote to authorize Town Attorney Ben Ancona to draft a Memorandum of Understanding for the Board’s consideration was approved 5-4 last night, with Democratic Councilors and Unaffiliated member Maureen Klett taking issue with the nature of communication-they say the proposal, which was made by Mayor Roy Zartarian to Board Chair Nancy Petronio in a June 5 letter, should have come before the full Council first-as well as the fact that the Board would still be utilizing one-time revenue to cover most of recurring costs in the way of staff salaries.

       Members of the Republican Majority countered that the proposal was simply to ensure that available money is used before the two sides turn to a transfer.

       “I believe in my heart everyone else wants to come to a conclusion that meets the needs of our students, but I think there’s some discrepancies in how we get there,” said Majority Leader Beth DelBuono. “We believe it’s a good faith effort that will allow the Board of Education to continue with hiring the two STEM teachers.”

       But it will be difficult to hire highly specialized instructors on money that is essentially not guaranteed to exist the following year, said Democratic Councilor Diana Serra.

       “Why would a teacher want to come to this town and not know next year if they have a job or not?” she asked.

       Uncertainty was a concern for voices on both sides, but for different reasons. Republicans pointed to the lingering question marks regarding the state budget impact while expressing apprehension about committing the CIP funds before the fiscal year even begins, while Democrats and Klett pointed to the fact that the health benefit surplus projections-currently said to be between $500,000 and $700,000- are at this point far from a sure thing.

       The Board had been hoping to persuade the Council Majority to approve a special appropriation or transfer of $625,000 from its CIP fund-money earmarked at budget time for security renovations at John Wallace Middle School, which, due to delays, cannot begin into 2019.

       A $625,000 transfer would have added the amount to the following year’s baseline Minimum Budgeting Requirement (MBR).

       At last night’s meeting, Petronio said that the Board would have been fine waiting the six months, as long as it had the Council’s commitment to the future shift. A question that came up during previous discussions was whether such a motion would be binding come November and the election of a new Council, and the same issue has been raised regarding the proposed memorandum.

       During special meeting discussions, as well as in his letter to Petronio, Zartarian implied that any midyear transfers would also be dependent on the state budget’s impact in the way of last minute costs and reductions to municipal aid. But at the end of deliberations Thursday night, Majority Leader Beth DelBuono indicated that they did not intend to draft the MOU with language tying the conditions of a transfer to state driven budget impact.

       The Council has imposed no set time frame on when the Board would need to respond, with Zartarian saying Friday morning that he preferred to let the Board base it on their own class scheduling time table. There are currently 350 students registered for STEM academy classes that may or may not be available.

       But the Board, according to Petronio, is unlikely to take the Council up on their proposal, although she said the next day that they will have to review it as a full body. On Thursday she said the sticking point was having it included in the operating budget.

       “If money is not in the operating budget, we’re not interested. It does not help us,” she said.

       Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins expressed Friday that he plans to request an opinion from Board legal counsel as to whether the MOU can set conditions mandating where the funds are used. The Board plans to direct them toward its stated priorities-STEM, special education, and the recalling of four non-tenured teacher layoffs-anyway, but another issue was the exclusion of that third objective, Petronio and Collins said.

       “We were looking at funding what we felt was mandatory at this point,” DelBuono said. “Special Ed. is clearly a mandate and none of us want to see that reduced, and we have to fund the STEM academies. And as far as we know, the teacher non renewals are an action the Board has already taken.”

       It has, but the Board can still rescind those, provided the needed level of funding, Petronio said Friday.

       When the Board deliberated during the budget session on what reductions to make in order to close the gap between their requested 2.49 percent increase and the 0.29 percent approved, they opted to defer the STEM positions in order to avoid losing existing staff.

       As to what they would do now, given a choice in the matter, Petronio admitted that it is too early to say for sure.

       “We need them all,” she said Friday.

       That was what town parents and students that signed a petition -over 600 led by residents Michael Branda and Dr. Forrest Helvie-were hoping to have achieved. A few came out to make their case Thursday, with others writing letters in favor of the transfer.

       “Be the good stewards you were entrusted to be, and invest in these resources. Let’s do the right thing for all the students across our system,” Helvie said.

       A couple of residents, however, expressed opposition to using the CIP funds. John Bachand-via a call in comment-said that he did not want to see the MBR increase for future years.

       Back at the Council table, Jim Marocchini said that he felt it made more sense to put the Wallace money into the $2 million academies already built, than a new construction project.

       “I think it’s time to stop hiding behind the state budget. We need to step up to the plate and do what’s right. We’ve invested in these programs, and it’s time to invest in the staff to run it,” he said.

       “You’re saying hide behind the state budget, but it is a reality. It may come down to every penny,” DelBuono said.

       As the discussion wore on, Klett continued to express dissatisfaction with the way the MOU was proposed, alleging that the Majority came into the meeting with its mind already made up.

       DelBuono countered that bringing a proposal up for discussion in session is not unprecedented, but Klett said that her issue was over the fact that this matter dealt with negotiating with members of another body.

       Petronio and DelBuono both said that they had been in contact with various Board members since Sunday, trying to gauge if there was a consensus on the MOU.