Democratic Slate Sets Sights on Grand List Growth, Education
NEWINGTON - As help from the state in the way of education grants becomes less of a sure thing, Grand List growth will become even more crucial to funding the school district at the level it needs to retain existing staff and continue current programs, as well as forge forward with new ones, said Democratic Town Council candidates at Tuesday night’s Meet and Greet.

       The event-held at the Newington based Knights of Columbus building just off the Berlin Turnpike-featured Democratic Mayoral nominee Terry Borjeson, along with candidates for both the Council and Board of Education.

       Borjeson-the former Democratic Majority Leader on the Council-said that the battles over the school budget that have taken place over the past couple of years can be avoided in the future if there’s more money to go around.

       “Education is important, but it’s going to require economic development,” Borjeson said. “We need to grow the Grand List. If you don’t grow, you stagnate, and all of a sudden, you have everyone fighting over this smaller pie.”

       Economic development has been a stated priority for both parties, but also at issue is the town’s scarcity of open space, which has prompted Democrats and Republicans alike to take a redevelopment centered approach. To that end, Borjeson is turning to Fenn Road and Newington Junction CT FasTrak station areas-the latter of which, he says, could present opportunities to revitalize manufacturing oriented properties that have fallen out of use.

       Nicholas Arace, a candidate for Council, had a similar take.

       “Like it or not, it’s [CT FasTrak] is there,” Arace said. “We have it-we have to own it.”

       Arace, too, sees development “that fits our community” as a means to achieving one of his other top priorities: the Board of Education funding needed to prevent future staff layoffs-the district lost four teachers this past budget cycle-and move forward with staffing a $2 million high school STEM academy.

       “We can’t rely on the state to shell us money every year-it’s not the reality,” Arace said. “I wanna grow the Grand List-not class sizes.”

       The town’s inability to rely on state aid in the future-in light of a tentative Governor’s executive order that would strip 85 municipalities of Education Cost Sharing dollars if a budget is not passed by October-is one point that Democrats and Republicans agree on.

       But levels of state aid have always been an uncertainty to some degree, and members of the Republican Majority have cited that in justifying the passage of low percentage Board budget increases over the past couple of years-controversial decisions that fueled early Democratic campaign rhetoric.

       While Arace, formerly a registered Republican, described himself in earlier interviews as a fiscal conservative, he, along with other candidates on his slate have pointed out that this year’s Board increase-0.3 percent-was not enough to cover contractually fixed staff salaries, let alone new positions for the STEM academies.

       At stake is untold amounts of money in potential magnet school costs, as well as the possibility of a loss of state reimbursement for the project, Democrats have said.

       While Republican councilors proposed a Memorandum of Understanding-in response to a requested transfer of CIP funds-requesting that the Board utilize projected health benefit surpluses to cover the STEM teachers and special education cost overages on the promise that the town would make up any shortfalls at midyear, the two sides hit a snag on the question of the tentative agreement’s legality.

       The discussion capped off two contentious budget cycles, prompting candidates from both sides to call for improved communication between the Council and Board. Arace said shortly after the DTC caucus that he would like to work with the Board to develop a joint strategic plan.

       Board incumbent Josh Shulman stated that he would-and has-supported a more collaborative effort in that regard, while expressing frustration over the fact that previous attempts by the two sides to hash out objectives prior to budget time have done little to make the process run smoother.

       Candidates from both the Council and Board slates said that while education funding is a staple of their platform, the executive order scenario-if it came to fruition-would be an unprecedented game changer.

       But the town’s ability to pay has always been a guiding consideration when formulating the school budget proposal, Shulman said.

       “I can’t imagine it’s [the executive order] a situation that the legislature would let happen,” he said. “But we’re shrinking as the money’s shrinking.”

       He cited the average school budget increase-2.5 percent-over the past 7 years, according to data on the Newington Public Schools website. Between 2000 and 2009, the average was over 5.4 percent.

       But Republicans might point to the Board requests, which often come in higher than what is ultimately approved by the Council. They did when Shulman ran for State Representative last year, to which he said that those proposals are meant to serve as a starting point, so that the community at large can consider the Board’s full spread of envisioned initiatives, and that later surpluses and the elimination of line item duplication through CIP also plays a role in bringing the number down.

       Shulman thinks that the state should get more involved in education funding, and-during the House run-was vocal about it. At the time, Newington was getting around $7 million less than it should have under Connecticut’s ECS formula.

       “At least now everyone knows that they don’t have a formula,” he said Tuesday. “It’s pretty obvious that it’s arbitrary. Towns like Newington-that seem like they have a steady tax base-have growing needs in areas like English Language Learners and special education.”

       The DTC’s Board slate at large has set reduced class sizes, a halt to staff layoffs, the renovation of the Blue Ribbon Award garnering Anna Reynolds Elementary School, and increased access to early childhood education atop their priority list.

       The latter serves also to curb the cost of magnet school tuition, since students that enroll in CREC’s system in pre-K are more likely to remain there throughout their K-12 education, Shulman said.

       Also on the radar is the growth of the district’s World Language curriculum-the district deferred the launch of a seventh grade Spanish initiative two years ago due to budget constraints.