School board approves $1.2 million worth of budget cuts

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MONROE, CT — Board of Education members approved over $1.2 million worth of cuts to balance their budget for fiscal year 2020-21 at a special meeting Monday night, but more work needs to be done.

Concessions made by teachers and administrators will allow the board to restore several other proposed reductions and negotiations with the district’s other unions are still underway.

“These are not on the block for tonight and hopefully we can get as much of this stuff back as possible, knowing that we’re not getting it all back,” Acting Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza said.

Chairwoman Donna Lane said five teaching positions will be saved because the teachers’ and administrators’ unions agreed to three days of unpaid furloughs for their membership. Among the positions to be kept are marketing and culinary teachers at Masuk High School, a music teacher and two of four reading teachers.

The Monroe Education Association agreed to concessions last week and the board approved a memorandum of agreement with the Monroe Association of School Administrators Monday.

Kobza said talks are still underway with unions for paraprofessionals, nurses, custodians and secretaries in hopes of finding additional savings that can lead to the restoration of more budget items.

Kobza was joined by several board members in expressing his gratitude to teachers and administrators for their sacrifice in putting Monroe’s schools and students first.

There was no referendum this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, so the Board of Finance approved a $58.5 million budget for Monroe’s public schools, representing a 2.15 percent spending increase over the current budget. But it is far from the 5.7 percent increase Superintendent of Schools Jack Zamary requested at the beginning of the process.

Finance Director Ronald Bunovsky said auditors and the Board of Finance know the school district will have a plug number at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, but understand how negotiations with bargaining units are still underway. He expects the budget to be finalized by the first couple of weeks in July.

Lane expects a final school board vote within two weeks.

‘The Manjos rule’ 

Though all Board of Education members voted in favor of the reductions Monday, the board’s Democratic minority said they were upset over the cuts, and only agreed to them to come within the budget number the district was given.

Nick Kapoor, a board Democrat, said the teachers and administrators are heroes for helping the district amid a flawed budget process.

The Board of Education had cut the superintendent’s proposal by $500,000. Then First Selectman Ken Kellogg made another $500,000 cut and the Board of Finance reduced it by another $1 million.

Kapoor said neither Kellogg nor fellow Republican, Board of Finance Chairman Michael Manjos, attended any of the Board of Education workshops when members spent over 17 hours going over their budget, line-item-by-line-item — each with its own story behind it.

Other than this year, rather than the voters deciding on education budgets the school board asks for, Kapoor said the Board of Finance reduces the requests to 2-to-2.5 percent year after year, before the referendum — compounding cuts from what the district needs on an annual basis.

“I am very, very upset and I don’t want this to keep happening,” Kapoor said.

He claimed the approval of education budgets with increases of no more than 2 to 2.5 percent are an unwritten rule on the Board of Finance. Democrats Alan Vaglivelo and Jerry Stevens agreed.

“I am concerned about Board of Finance Chairman Manjos’ power grab on the Board of Ed,” said Vaglivelo, adding the finance board chairman will not allow anything over 2 percent.

During the budget process, Vaglivelo said school board members heard about “antiquated science equipment, overcrowding classrooms,” and “a significant increase in students needing academic, social and emotional support” due to cuts at a time when more money will be needed.

“And the Board of Finance chairman has also indicated that our teachers make too much money,” Vaglivelo said of a letter Manjos wrote to the Town Council urging them to vote against the teachers contract. “Well,  I have a challenge for Mr. Manjos. I would like to see him spend one day substitute teaching in a middle school classroom. Then he can tell me if he feels that our teachers make too much money.”

“You guys have to understand something, we want and have award winning schools,” Stevens said, “want and have award winning students, want and have award winning teachers. But unfortunately, Monroe has always been noted as the town that wants everything and pays for nothing.”

“There is this unwritten cap, whether you want to admit it or not, want to agree with us or not, there is this 2 percent rule — and it’s happened way before this administration,” Stevens added. “We’re not even given the cost of living. Look over the past 15 years and look at what we’ve gotten as a school system. It doesn’t equate.”

Manjos responds

David Ferris, a Republican on the Board of Education, said he has never been pressured by anyone from Town Hall to approve a certain number for the school district’s budget.

“We have to budget and be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers,” Ferris said. “I haven’t had a raise in my pension, so I can’t pay a 5.8 percent increase in taxes. I sympathize with the other people in Monroe. I’m not crazy about cutting. I’m not crazy about saying no to our school district, but like Nick said, I am gonna vote yes because we do need to run the district with what we’re given.”

Ferris also thanked Kobza and the district’s other administrators for working hard and making tough decisions. Lane also thanked Kobza and his team.

Reached for comment after the meeting, Manjos said he is one of six finance board members and denied having a rule limiting education budget increases.

“Obviously there is no written or unwritten rule, because there’s six people on the board and our budgets typically pass unanimously,” Manjos said. “It did this year. It did last year.”

The last three Board of Education budget increases were 2.15 this year, 1.96 in 2019-20 and 2.75 percent in 2018-19, according to Manjos.

The reduction lists

The school board approved a Phase 1 list of reductions for its $500,000 cut Monday night. It is as follows:

Maintenance $150,057, furniture replacement at Fawn Hollow $9,500, an athletics high jump mat $5,500, Jockey Hollow’s Big Ideas online math program $17,850, a professional development conference/course registration fee $11,725, Teachers College Professional Development $46,400, Elementary Summer Reading Program $24,021, Masuk High School Work Program $21,625, K-5 coordinators $167,752, interns $31,360, a secretary $58,868 and a mail courier $11,046. Total $555,704.

The Phase 2 reduction list for the first selectman’s $500,000 cut approved by the Board of Education is:

Moving Alternative Education to Masuk $60,000, Masuk hockey rinks locker fee $8,300, para reduction $90,308, Jockey Hollow STEM retirement $75,207, two full time equivalent positions at Masuk $249,960, custodian/security $37,765, and a Monroe Elementary School psychologist (salary and benefits) $67,251. Total $454,289.

A Phase 3 reduction list for the Board of Finance cut was only partially approved Monday. Among those reductions are insurance savings $127,328, toner savings $40,000, copier lease reduction $11,993 and a $50 increase in Masuk’s athletics surcharge projected to raise $30,000. Total $209,321.

Most of the remaining Phase 3 list are things educators expect to put back into the budget, especially the teaching positions. Though some items, such as $92,200 worth of stipends for clubs at Masuk and Jockey Hollow and two of four reading teachers, may still have to be cut.

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