MONROE, CT —Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Lane wrote a letter on behalf of her board asking the Board of Finance to use a portion of the school district’s $323,000 surplus to restore one of three furlough days teachers, and members of other bargaining units, gave up to help the town in a budget year marked by uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, during a meeting Thursday night, Board of Finance Chairman Michael Manjos noted how the town is only three months into the current fiscal year, at a time when high unemployment could hurt revenue when the second half of homeowners’ tax bills are due, and the pandemic could still impact Monroe’s public schools.
Instead, he proposed using $1 million of the approximately $1.1 million combined surplus from the town and Board of Education’s 2019-2020 budgets to create two $500,000 reserve accounts, one for unforeseen special education costs and the other for emergencies.
“I think supporting the special education account is a great move,” Manjos said. “It’s something we wanted to do for years.”
Manjos called special education a “wildcard” because costs are hard to predict. He added it is unfair for the Board of Education to take on all the financial risk, only to have to take money away from other students and programs whenever there are unforeseen special education expenses.
Other finance board members agreed and unanimously approved the creation of the new accounts.
Whenever the Board of Education has a surplus at the end of the year, it must turn the money over to the town, because by state statute it cannot carry over the money to the next year. So use of the $323,000 surplus was the Board of Finance’s decision to make.
Advocates for teachers, employees
The memorandum of understanding between the Monroe Education Association and the town promised teachers would be reimbursed, if certain money is available. Section 5 of the agreement reads:
If the district receives “any additional unencumbered financial assistance or funding from the State or Federal government beyond that currently budgeted, and those funds result in the Board having a surplus over its reasonable and necessary expenses at the end of the year, the District agrees to apply that money to restoring one or more furlough days, unless the money is specifically designated by legislation for other purposes.”
During the public comment portion of Thursday’s Board of Finance meeting, Board of Education member Nick Kapoor, while speaking on his own behalf, asked the board to reimburse teachers and other education bargaining units for one furlough day.
Kapoor said the teachers negotiated in good faith in the contract that was passed, but recalled how Manjos wrote a letter to the Town Council urging them to reject the contract. At that meeting, he said teachers had to defend the raises in their new agreement.
Then COVID-19 hit, forcing drastic changes in education, almost overnight, which directly impacted teachers, Kapoor said, adding budget cuts “put teachers in a box,” where they could either give back or face layoffs.
“We were the only district in the state where teachers agreed to furlough days and the teachers did the right thing and the Board of Education still had to make some very, very painful cuts that we are still seeing the ramifications of,” Kapoor said. “Thankfully, it is due to our teachers, our administrative team and everybody who works for the Board of Education that we haven’t had a gap in services or in our education here in Monroe.”
Now with the Board of Education and the town combining for a surplus of over $1 million, Kapoor asked the Board of Finance to use the money to buy back one furlough day and put the rest into a reserve for special education.
Marie Blake, president of the Monroe Education Association, which is the teachers union, was reached for comment after the meeting.
She said the agreement on furlough days is not the first time teachers agreed to reopen their contract to help the town, recalling when they agreed to switch from the school district’s self-insured plan to the State of Connecticut Partnership Plan around two years ago, helping to put a stop to cost overruns in medical insurance.
Blake has been advocating, not just for teachers to be reimbursed for the furlough days, but for the members of all bargaining units who gave furlough days or gave up raises to help the town in the current budget.
Manjos said if the Board of Education has money left over at the end of the current fiscal year and wants to use it to reimburse members of its bargaining units, the school board is welcome to do so. But Blake is skeptical.
“I was disappointed,” she said of the Board of Finance’s decision Thursday. “I understand that they have to put money aside. However, they also have contractual obligations, and I fear that they have the mentality that if they don’t spend it, they’ll lose it, so come June I won’t be surprised if there isn’t extra money.”
Hard working teachers
After reading Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Lane’s letter and hearing Kapoor speak, finance board member Rebecca O’Donnell, said she understands where they are coming from, but added she agrees with using surplus money to create the two funds.
O’Donnell said it is early in the 2020-21 budget year and, if the Board of Education ends up with another surplus it could reimburse the district’s employees with money from the same budget year the MOU was agreed upon.
Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza, who attended the virtual meeting, told board members how in the age of COVID teachers must pay attention to students seated in front of them, as well as students on Zoom.
John Ostaszewski, vice chairman of the Board of Finance, praised teachers for doing a “yeoman’s job, keeping everyone safe and educating the kids in a tough environment.”
“Hats off to you Joe and everyone on your side,” he said.
Manjos also said Kobza and the teachers are doing a great job, while adding how nearly all town employees sacrificed something this budget year.
“I’m very impressed with how everyone stepped up in town. Nobody’s looking to hurt anybody,” he said. “We’re just trying to be conservative and careful.”
Manjos said the town is waiting to see what financial reimbursement Monroe can expect from the state of Connecticut, which has had serious deficits over the years and, in turn, placed higher burdens on municipalities.
“Once we get past February, we’ll have a much better idea of what our financial situation will look like,” he said.