MONROE, CT — Nick Kapoor, a school board member, says the board’s charge is to pass a budget that fully funds education, so during Tuesday’s meeting he motioned to approve Superintendent of Schools Joseph Kobza’s budget proposal as is, with the 5.85 percent spending increase intact.
The majority of the Board of Education agreed, and approved the $61.9 million budget by a vote of 7 to 2, moving it to First Selectman Ken Kellogg’s desk.
“As a newish homeowner, I feel the property tax burden now, very much so,” Kapoor said. “But I’m still going to vote for this budget tonight, because at the end of our process is a great thing in our referendum, and if the people don’t like it, they can tell us no. And they should be able to have the opportunity to vote on a full budget. I hope it can stay intact to that point, so the people have a choice to vote how they want to.”
Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order last year, requiring the Board of Finance to decide on the budget during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Monroe held a Presidential election last November, so Kapoor expressed his hope there will be a budget referendum this year.
Chairman Donna Lane joined Kapoor in voting for Kobza’s proposal, along with Shannon Monaco, Christina Cascella, Jerry Stevens, Dr. Alan Vaglivelo and Vice Chairman George A. King III.
Voting no were David Ferris and Jeff Fulchino, who were both concerned over the impact on the mill rate, which is used to calculate individual property tax bills.
Ferris said it was difficult for him to vote in favor of Kapoor’s motion, because he knows what went into the budget proposal and does not see a lot of fluff.
“For me, 5.85 is still very high,” Ferris said of the increase. “I believe that would still put about a 5 percent tax burden on all the taxpayers in town, so I think we should find some further changes and some further reductions.”
Fulchino said Monroe has the third highest mill rate of the 23 towns in Fairfield County, with the fifth smallest grand list and the seventh smallest population. He said he was not advocating for a zero, but that a 5 percent tax increase would be too much.
“I think we’re asking too much of our small businesses and our families in town during a pandemic,” he said.
In his argument in favor of passing Kobza’s entire budget, Kapoor said the spending increase is comparable to other education budgets in the region. He said Westport’s superintendent proposed a 5.3 percent increase, Fairfield 5 percent, New Canaan 6.2, Brookfield and Greenwich a 4, and Stonington a 9 percent increase.
Kapoor also said the current student of enrollment of 3,215 is already at the level of projections for 2024-25, according to a report done for the district last year.
Vaglivelo said the district is down 18 teachers from the last time the student population was that high. He expressed concerns over larger class sizes at the elementary school level.
“I agree with Nick that we have a referendum. I’m just hoping that we can put out a budget that the kids deserve and let the voters decide,” he said.
After so many things were cut during a time of uncertainty last year, Lane said she thought the superintendent would present a proposal above 8 percent, so she thanked Kobza and his staff for identifying priorities.
“I’m also concerned with where our elementary schools are and where the enrollment is,” Lane said. “I definitely support where we are with this budget and I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
“There’s no fluff here,” Monaco said of the budget, “and we’re balancing it with what families can afford during a pandemic — and it’s a really hard one. I have to agree with Nick, we have a referendum process and I think more people need to have a say.”
“The bottom line is it’s always about the kids,” Stevens said. “We can’t take a step back. We have to keep moving. Most of you moved here for our education and we have to keep providing that — and I don’t know any other way how.”
Cascella noted how board members had just added three programs back into the budget at zero impact to the bottom line. She said it wouldn’t make sense to do that, only to vote to cut the budget with the belief it is too high. She also supported letting the voters decide at referendum.
Interns, summer reading, math
Prior to the board vote on the entire budget, several motions were made to restore programs.
Ferris made a motion to take $15,000 from the “supplies/custodial systemwide” line item and use the money to restore the summer reading program.
He said the supplies/custodial line item had a $55,000 increase over the current budget and if more money is needed after the transfer, the Board of Finance had put $500,000 into a fund for COVID-related and other unexpected expenses.
Lane said the district may also get funding under the CARES Act.
The motion passed unanimously.
Vaglivelo made a motion to transfer $4,515 from the supplies/custodial line item to restore a stipend for a teacher to teach a class as a math coordinator for all three elementary schools.
“We have it for science right now and this would restore it for math,” Kapoor said of the stipend. “It’s another resource. Someone more well versed in that discipline can make instruction better for the students.”
Ferris said that would reduce the supplies custodial line item’s increase to $35,000.
Kobza said there used to be a dedicated person serving as a math coordinator for all three elementary schools. While the $4,515 is only a stipend for a teacher to do it, in addition to teaching regular classes, Kobza said it is a step in the right direction.
Lane noted that there used to be a full-time science coordinator too.
The motion passed unanimously.
Kapoor made a motion to restore $48,000 to the internship program for Monroe’s three elementary schools, by taking $28,000 from two substitute teacher line items (Kobza would have the flexibility to decide how much to use from each), $13,000 from maintenance and grounds and $7,000 from custodians’ overtime activities.
The motion passed by vote of 8 to 1 with King voting no.
King said he thought the board was micromanaging line items. He said the school board should work on a macro-level and allow the superintendent and his staff to handle the fine details.