Monroe school board approves budget without cuts, anticipates health insurance savings

Masuk High School is located at 1014 Monroe Turnpike.

MONROE, CT — Board of Education members approved Superintendent Joseph Kobza’s $72.5 million budget request without cuts Thursday, leaving the entire 7.15 percent spending increase intact. However, Chairman David Ferris anticipates a lower health insurance hike, which could reduce the budget when its before the Board of Finance.

Finance Director Ron Bunovsky Jr. estimates health insurance rates will be $500,000 to $600,000 lower than initial projections, though that will not be known with certainty until the spring.

The school board also decided to put off paving the Monroe Elementary School parking lot next fiscal year. Though that affects the capital budget, not the Board of Education budget, Ferris said this and the health insurance rate will result in about $1 million in savings.

“It is not lost on me that this budget is higher than what’s in the past,” Kobza told the board at a special meeting. “We knew this was coming with increased enrollment. We knew this was coming, especially with the loss of the ARP ESSER funds.”

The discontinuance of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) fund means $697,252 will have to be made up with the operating budget, because instead of using the grant money for one time expenses, the school board decided to use the bulk of it to fund new positions.

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.

Kobza explained how enrollment had been decreasing since 2010, before the slide ended in 2018-19. Then enrollment began to climb every year. Using 2018-19 as the baseline, Kobza said there has been an overall increase of 374 students.

“To put that in perspective, in grades K to 5 in Monroe Elementary we have 337 students,” Kobza said, “so we’ve added a whole K-5 school — now this is spread out through the district. Just to put this in perspective, we’ve added more than a school’s worth of K-5 students in our district from 18-19 to today.”

The superintendent said new housing developments in town, which appear likely to be approved, continue to apply pressure on enrollment and the school system.

“Monroe continues to be a desirable place,” he said. “We know we’re going to have challenges.”

A significant increase

Prior to the vote, Justin Orlando, a board member, said he understands the district’s needs, but added increasing the education budget every year, while many taxpayers are struggling, is not a sustainable path and at some point board members will have to make difficult decisions.

“We all knew this was coming with the grant money,” Ferris said. “We knew about this. We’re all very well prepared and we’re all taxpayers in this town too, so we do take it seriously. We look at every line and I thank the board, because I think all of us did our homework, meeting with the department heads, and we don’t take this lightly.”

Dennis Condon, a board member, praised administrators for providing the information, answering questions and showing their requests are for things they need, rather than what they want.

“Contractually, salaries go up, health care keeps going up. There’s only so much we can control,” Condon said.

“I totally understand the dynamics there, but it’s not sustainable,” Orlando said. “It’s gonna come to a head at some point. I’d love to get more proactive about it and figure it out before it does.”

The board approved the budget by a vote of 8-1 with Greg Beno the lone dissenter. Voting yes were Ferris, Vice Chair Christine Cascella, Secretary Alan Vaglivelo, Condon, Orlando, Jerry Stevens, Jeff Fulchino and Chrissy Martinez.

The Board of Education budget will now go to First Selectman Terry Rooney, who has the option of revising the dollar amount. Then it will go to the Board of Finance as part of the entire town budget for final deliberations before voters decide on it at referendum.

If the education budget proposal were to pass as is, the current $67,683,424 education budget would increase by $4,841,235 to $72,524,659.

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, Kobza thanked everyone involved in the budget process.

“I don’t take it lightly with the numbers that we’re looking at,” he said. “I hear exactly what you’re saying. Like all of you I live in this town. I pay taxes too. I have a mother who lives on a fixed income. I understand the needs that we have right now. It’s a challenge and, as numbers come in, if anything changes we’ll make those moves. But thank you to all of you for your support.”

Support for staffing requests

During the meeting, Kobza shared the salaries of new staffing positions and explained the impact on the budget. Board members expressed support for these requests.

A 10-month-per-year assistant principal at Fawn Hollow would be $134,876.

Fulchino asked if 10 months would give Principal Leigh Metcalf Ances the assistance she needs and Kobza said it would.

Vaglivelo pointed out that the new position would also have the effect of freeing up other staff members to do their own jobs, rather than having to spend time helping Ances with duties the assistant principal would do.

A 1.0 social studies teacher at Masuk High School,  $77,240, would help in offering electives, maintaining class sizes and reducing the amount of time students spend in study halls.

Other positions are $77,240 for a 1.0 special education teacher at Masuk and $77,240 for a 1.0 math interventionist at Jockey Hollow Middle School — Kobza said $30,643 of this would be offset from reductions of non-certified math tutors.

The budget proposal includes a $46,597 reduction of two non-certified math interventionists at Jockey Hollow

Positions at Stepney Elementary School include a 0.4 counselor for $40,800, a 0.5 speech and language pathologist ($44,565), and $32,460 for a 0.3 special education teacher.

Monroe Elementary School would have a 0.4 special education teacher $77,240. Kobza said this would be offset by $4,419 because a teacher with longevity will be leaving the district, and the new teacher’s salary will be at a lower step.

An armed school security officer at Masuk would cost $38,563. This position could also act as a floater for the elementary schools when their officer is out for a prolonged period of time.

Five lunch/recess paras would cost $49,275 or $9,855 each.

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  1. I urge everyone to attend board of Ed meetings, ask why the 7.15% increase , what’s the bus transportation costs , what are you doing to reduce healthcare premiums, IT costs? And more. Get involved and vote.

  2. One of the many reasons Monroe continues to be a desirable place for families to move to is because of the schools. However, I worry that it won’t remain that way for long if staffing does not keep pace with a significant increase in enrollment and the quality of education being provided to our children begins to decline. The educators in the elementary school my children attend–and by educators, I mean teachers, staff and administration, all of them–are clearly working very hard to deal with the recent increase in enrollment, but I see specialists having to split their time between multiple schools and too many students, class sizes creeping up, space issues, etc. I don’t want to dismiss, or minimize the concerns of my fellow taxpayers–Fairfield County is not an easy place to afford, or support a family–but I don’t think that what Superintendent Kobza is asking for is unreasonable.

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