School Board Candidates Speak on Initiatives, Budget in NCTV Forum
NEWINGTON - A look to an envisioned future of fully operational STEM, World Language, and early childhood education initiatives as well as a reminder of the state budget uncertainty that looms over the town in the present marked an NCTV-hosted Meet the Candidates event featuring Board of Education incumbents and newcomers.

       Democratic and Republican candidates made their cases to host Steve Parker, NCTV cameras, and a sparse Town Hall auditorium crowd Wednesday night, with members of both parties placing the opening of a $2 million Newington High School STEM academy-deferred because the district does not have the teachers to staff them-atop their stated priority lists.

       The candidates for the Republican slate are incumbents Steve Silvia, Robert Tofeldt, Paul Vessella, and newcomers Danielle Drozd and Jeremy Whetzel. Current Board members Josh Shulman, Emily Guion, Dr. Sharon Braverman, and Cindy Stamm are joined by Michael Branda on the Democratic side.

       “You have ten individuals who want to volunteer,” Silvia said. “Every single one are needed. I wish I could take them all to the Board.”

       Guion, a former teacher and PTO president, rang in her run for reelection with a call for collaboration as well.

       “I believe that what it boils down to is we’re all fighting for what we believe is right for our town, and I think we’re all fighting for the same thing,” Guion said. “We need to work together.”

       What Dr. Braverman-a CCSU Assistant Dean running for her sixth Board term-thinks is right for the town is a school system that offers a plethora of career prep opportunities in the form of networking, shadowing, and internship opportunities. To that end, she hopes to further bridge the gap between the school system and business community in order to provide them.

       “As I run for my sixth term, my ideology remains constant: to celebrate our successes, but remain ready for change,” she said.

       Shulman, an attorney running for his fourth Board term, would like to reap some of the Board’s recent successes, which include preparing a seventh grade World Language initiative that would make Spanish a core subject alongside its eighth grade counterpart in a push to expand to the elementary level.

       Due to budget constraints, the Board has had to hold off on hiring the required Spanish instructors needed to see the initiative through.

       Also on his priority list is expanding early childhood education opportunities-namely in the form of a districtwide program-in an effort to get a jump on the achievement gap before students hit third grade.

       “Newington has never been afraid to lead,” Shulman said. “This initiative would undoubtedly increase Newington’s desirability to families and decrease the amount of money we spend for kids to go to magnet schools.”

       Drozd, a long-time teacher whose career has taken her from West Hartford Public Schools to CREC, said that she sees education’s rapid evolution firsthand, and that it can happen even while spending is curtailed.

       “I have an understanding of what it means to be successful,” she said. “I’m cognizant of spending, and I know money does not equal success.”

       What role the current Republican Council majority’s budgeting decisions over the past two years played in the Board not funding the STEM positions has been a point of contention, and some of that disagreement played out in early candidate comments.

       Branda, a manager for the ALS Society, said that the discourse around the budget over the past two years, as well as the Council approved increases-0.3 percent this year, and 0.5 percent the prior cycle, before the Board’s own $515,000 surplus was factored in-were what motivated him to get involved.

       “The moment I knew I needed to run for the Board of Education was when it was clear our High School STEM Academy was being used as a political punching bag rather than what it was truly intended for, which was to offer students an education in Newington that was unlike any other,” Branda said.

       He started this past Spring, when he and fellow resident Dr. Forrest Helvie launched a petition urging Council Republicans to take the Board up on their request for a $625,000 special appropriation from their CIP-for the purpose of hiring STEM teachers, covering last minute special education cost overages, and recalling four laid off teachers. The petition generated over 600 signatures.

       “What could have been a great moment for bipartisanship in our town, turned into yet another political line in the sand and our students were the victims of it,” Branda said.

       Sitting next to him on the panel was Silvia, an outspoken critic of Board budgeting practices throughout his first term. In a statement released to The Rare Reminder and Newington Town Crier the week before, he said that he believes the Board’s current $70 million budget “is sufficient to run the schools”, albeit with some creative “leveraging of existing assets”.

       “We’ve got the messenger from the Governor-we understand what’s going to happen to our ECS,” Silvia said at the event. “Whoever is selected is going to have one hell of a battle trying to deliver the services and vision of this Board of Education.”

       Superintendent of Schools Bill Collins told the Board a couple of weeks ago that they are currently looking at a $1.8 million deficit to start this coming budget cycle-due to calling upon one-time health benefit surpluses to cover teacher salaries when Council Republicans would not sign off on a stated baseline of 2.49 percent.

       In his own statements, Branda said that he “appreciates the importance of fiscal responsibility”, and to that end, letting the high school STEM academy sit idle was a mistake the town may reap both in the price of the project and in magnet school tuition costs.

       “That’s not protecting anybody’s tax dollars,” he said. “That’s actually putting a flame to it.”

       In a counter proposal to the requested transfer, Council Republicans offered a Memorandum of Understanding asking that the Board utilize projected health benefits-due to come in this month-until the Charter permitted midyear transfer date in January, with the promise to cover any shortfall, but the matter got tied up in conflicting attorney opinions over whether the agreement would have been legal for the Board to enter.

       Nevertheless, the state budget scenario, which threatens a $15 million reduction in municipal aid-including the totality of the town’s ECS revenue-will demand an end to “business as usual”, said Whetzel, an IT professional in Vernon Public Schools who also serves as a union president.

       “I understand how local government operates for better or worse and as someone who just saw his daughter start school, I’m invested in seeing our school system thrive,” he said. “We have to be diligent in keeping our schools financially stable, while providing a high quality education.”

       To that end, Silvia said that he believes more funding on the Board side can be directed toward teachers and students, as opposed to “things”-namely, maintenance and transportation expenditures. He’s also been critical of administrative line items.

       “Newington is about average in per pupil expenditures,” he said. “What’s not average is what we’re spending on administration, transportation, maintenance, and technology. What does that mean we’re underspending on average? Teachers.”

       Silvia is referring to data on Connecticut School Finance Project-a website that pulls district filed year end expenditure reports into comprehensive charts for the sake of comparison. He says that he compared Newington’s numbers to statewide averages. The Rare Reminder examined the data within Newington’s District Reference Group of towns.

       While Newington’s combined administrative costs-general and school based-form 10 percent of its expenditures against the District Reference Group D average of 8.8 percent, the district has always come in higher than its comparable peers because of the way it classifies its administrators, according to Collins.

       Newington lands at 6 percent-right on average-in the school based category, while subject area department heads inflate the genera administration side because their day to day tasks include a mix of teaching and administrative tasks, he said.

       “It may appear as if we’re top-heavy, but you have to call them what they are, for the sake of transparency,” Collins said.

       In the Central Office, the district lost two administrators to layoffs amidst budget cuts last year.

       As for maintenance, while the 14 percent reported on the site is above average-10 percent for all reference group districts-what the data doesn’t take into account is debt service, which can run higher for school systems that renovate more often.

       The tradeoff for a town like Newington, with older buildings, is less debt service but higher maintenance costs, Collins says.

       To that, Silvia wrote in an email that he would like to have a closer “look at the books” in order to examine the cost of individual maintenance requests in the school buildings.

       Meanwhile, the Board’s operating budget line items for maintenance show a downward trend-from $4.7 million in 2015-2016, to about half that in each of the two subsequent years, according to Newington Public School budget charts.

       Last year, the Board directed some of its operating budget maintenance to the CIP-signaling a focus solely on Priority One fixes due to financing constraints, with Collins warning that failure to obtain the amounts requested in a Capital appropriation would add to their deficit for the following year.

       To date, they’ve covered half of the priority one projects, according to the 2017-2018 budget document.

       In transportation, Newington comes in at 5 percent of its expenditures-just below the 5.3 percent average for its DRG. Silvia’s taken particular issue with the district’s bus purchases-a sentiment echoed in the Republican “Fund Kids, Not Buses” campaign slogans that have appeared around town.

       The charge is that the funding could be better utilized for the staff salaries driving the vast majority of the Board budget, but the problem is the buses have been purchased with health benefit credits-one time surpluses that would not be guaranteed when the same compensation payments are due the following year, Collins has said.

       Not that it hasn’t been done-the district owes its $1.8 million budget hole in large part to using surpluses to cover salaries, according to Collins.

       In a conversation outside Town Hall Wednesday night, Silvia alleged that the Board had already covered teacher salary costs through various “life events”-staffing expense changes driven by attrition, leaves of absence, and other unanticipated moves-when the $1.8 million surplus was offered to the town for the purchase of the St. Mary’s School building as a way to offset costs associated with the Town Hall project.

       But the surplus funds were still available only because the Board was waiting to see if the Council would take them up on the proposal, which would have involved directing $1.8 million toward the school operating budget as a way to ensure that the expenditures for salaries were locked in place the next year, according to Collins.

       The Board also proposed moving $1 million from its CIP to help pay for renovations to the St. Mary’s building, he said.

       As for the buses, Collins purchased 11 in 2014-a move to make up for fleet depletion brought on by the aging out of vehicles, combined with yearly deferment of replacements-after 14 vehicles were taken off the road. The Board faced the prospect of staff layoffs during the first low increase budget cycle in 2016-2017.

       The buses-on a 6 vehicle per year replacement plan-have not made it through the CIP approval process for several years, prompting the use of surpluses, according to NPS budget documents. The vehicles-each with a 10 year lifespan-are subject to periodic DOT inspection and can be pulled off the road if deemed unsafe.

       Silvia questioned whether the 2014 bus expenditure could have gone forward without Town Charter mandated referendum, but Section C. 408 refers specifically to special appropriations over $975,000, while setting the cap at $375,000 for bonding.