MONROE, CT — Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza says the loss of grant money, growing student enrollment and high projections for health insurance premiums factored into the 7.15 percent spending increase in his $72.5 million budget request for Monroe’s public schools for fiscal year 2024-25.
Kobza acknowledged he is asking for a significant increase when presenting his proposal to the Board of Education during its meeting Tuesday night.
“I think the needs of the district keep growing and this budget really addresses all of these needs,” he said. “We’re facing the same issues as a lot of other communities with the loss of ESSER funding.”
The discontinuance of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) fund will leave a $697,252 hole that would have to be made up with the operating budget.
“We knew that we were going to hit a fiscal cliff,” Kobza said. “We knew that it was coming. We have used ARP ESSER to supplement our budget, to pay for positions. We have been very candid about that.”
In the current budget, $634,012 of the funding is being used for salaries and benefits, $62,500 for reading and math development and $740 for supplies.
The Board of Education will host workshops and may revise the budget proposal before it reaches First Selectman Terry Rooney’s desk. Rooney could also revise the dollar amount, before the Board of Finance reviews it.
If Kobza’s proposal were to pass as is, the current $67,683,424 education budget would increase by $4,841,235 to $72,524,659.
Rising enrollment, insurance
Though many communities saw reductions in enrollment, Kobza said Monroe’s enrollment grew by nearly 12 percent since the pandemic, rising each year, especially at the elementary school level. The district has talked about modular units for Fawn Hollow.
Since the 2018-19 school year, Monroe public schools’ total enrollment rose from 3,118 to 3,479 students this year, an increase of around 11.6 percent according to Kobza.
Projections for next school year are 681 students at Fawn Hollow, 410 at Monroe Elementary School, 512 at Stepney Elementary School, 767 at Jockey Hollow Middle School and 1,065 at Masuk High School.
Kobza said administrators will continue to monitor enrollment.
The superintendent said insurance brokers told the district to budget for a 15 percent increase in health insurance premiums.
Kobza said Finance Director Ronald Bunovsky Jr. always reminds him this is a marathon, not a sprint, so numbers will be updated later in the budget process, including health insurance and enrollment.
Other factors include the continued escalation of special education costs, continued funding of repair and maintenance accounts, inflation and the Chromebook initiative.
Kobza said the key drivers of the $4.8 million increase are $2,684,110 more in salaries, $1,283,545 for medical insurance, $585,058 for tuition for special education and $274,033 more for transportation.
While the bus company is able to provide service for the district to take students to and from school, Kobza said All-Star Transportation has not been able to get enough drivers for sports and other extracurricular activities, driving up costs when the district needs to pay a premium for outside services.
The superintendent is asking for several certified staff positions including one social studies teacher and one special education teacher at Masuk.
Kobza said Masuk already has someone who is certified in both English and social studies, so the teacher who is hired could be either. Currently, he said social studies has 19 sections of over 26 students, adding 12 have 28 students and two have 29.
Masuk has not been able to have as many electives, he added. “This one gets more kids in classes and less kids in study halls,” Kobza said of the position.
An additional special education teacher at Masuk would help with the caseloads, which are between 20-23 and growing, according to Kobza.
“We do want to reduce the section sizes in our guided learning resource classes,” he said, adding there would be additional one-on-one structured literacy support.
Next year, Masuk would have an additional structured curriculum class and a Unified physical education class.
Kobza is also asking for an armed school security officer for the high school.
In 2020, he said the district reduced a security guard at Masuk. Since then, the alternative program moved into Masuk, which also houses the high school and STEM Academy.
Kobza said an armed officer gives parents peace of mind and the new officer could be used as a floater when elementary schools are short.
Through no fault of their own, Kobza said school resource officers were recently out for extended periods of time. He said the Monroe Police Department works well with the district, providing an officer to fill in when needed, with a caveat that the officer may have to leave to go out on a call.
“We can’t always rely on it and it’s nobody’s fault,” Kobza said.
The budget proposal includes a certified math interventionist for Jockey Hollow and the elimination of two non-certified math intervention positions at Jockey Hollow to offset the cost. Kobza said the interventionist would assess, plan and instruct students who need additional support, while helping to raise math scores.
A 0.4 counselor position at Stepney, which currently has a 0.6 counselor, would provide more equity among the district’s three elementary schools, Kobza said, noting Stepney’s enrollment is up by 25 students from this time a year ago and there is a higher concentration of multi-language learners there.
Kobza is asking for a half-time speech and language pathologist for Stepney, where there is currently one person who teaches about 70 students, as well as pre-K students who need assistance.
A 0.3 special education teacher at Stepney and a 0.4 at Monroe Elementary would increase two existing teachers to full-time positions. A IDEA grant will pay for the additional hours, funding Kobza said the district cannot bank on receiving every fall.
Kobza said Fawn Hollow has 699 students and its principal, Leigh Metcalf Ances, needs an assistant principal to help her with SRB, PPTs, scheduling and discipline.
He and Ances did research and Kobza said he cannot find an elementary school anywhere near the size of Fawn Hollow that doesn’t have an assistant principal.
“We would look at it as a 10 month position,” he said. “Most of our principal positions are 12 months.”
A non-certified staff request includes five lunch/recess paraprofessionals, each working for 15 hours a week.
Kobza said they would supervise the cafeteria and playground, giving para-educators more time to be in the classrooms supporting teachers. These positions would also allow teachers to have more midday meetings on curriculum, instruction and assessment, he said.
Principals for all of Monroe’s schools spoke about their own budgets. This will be included in other articles.
All budget workshops begin at 7 p.m. Special education and curriculum and instruction will be covered this Thursday and a workshop on IT, facilities and the capital budget will be held on Jan. 9.
Questions will be answered and the board will deliberate and adopt a budget on Jan. 16 (holding another meeting on the 18th if necessary).
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