The superintendent of schools on Monday night proposed a spending plan for next fiscal year of nearly $92.8 million.
Dr. Bryan Luizzi’s operating budget includes about $950,000 for the additional buses and attendant staffing that would be needed for a revised start times schedule for New Canaan Public Schools.
It represents a 1.47% increase over current spending, meeting the town’s 1.5% budget guidance.
The increased cost for a new start times schedule is offset by an anticipated reduction of about $1.9 million in spending on district employee benefits, Luizzi told members of the Board of Education in presenting his proposed budget during their regular meeting.
Reduced projections for healthcare costs next year stem from “significantly improved performance” and other factors, Luizzi said at the meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School.
Though Luizzi did not go into granular depth on the large reduction in benefits spending, saying the district’s insurance consultant would appear before the Board Jan. 13, he noted that factors include fewer retiree and active participants, increased reimbursements on prescription drugs (about $100,000), well-negotiated benefits in partnership with faculty and staff, and a re-allocation of profits from food services.
“The district has been paying for the benefits of our food service employees, but best practices try to have that program be as self-sufficient as possible,” Luizzi said. “So from those profits we are looking to move $200,000 from the food service program into benefits in order to pay for a portion of the health benefits for those employees. So to be clear, it is not from the insurance money. It is from the profits we are raising from the program, for a variety of reasons.”
The presentation came during an initial read of the superintendent’s budget by the Board of Ed, which will vote Jan. 21 on the budget, and which point it moves on to the Board of Selectmen and town funding bodies.
Overall, about 81% of the district’s operating budget goes toward salaries ($61.8 million) and benefits ($13 million).
“As educators we believe that wherever possible our resources should go to support that core work,” Luizzi said. “So it just makes sense that our resources would be first and foremost put toward our staffing. Education is a people business. Human capital is our primary asset. And the quality of the educational experience in the classroom is dependent on the work that occurs in the instructional core, which is the relationship between our teacher, our student and the content. And our budget reflects this understanding. Research shows the single most influential factor in a student’s growth in school is his or her teacher and we distribute our resources with this in mind.”
Specifically with respect to salaries, the district is adding 1.2 full-time equivalents or “FTEs” in certified staffing at the elementary schools and one FTE in social studies at NCHS, among other positions. Those include two additional van drivers in the district’s Special Education transportation program, which is part of the changing school start times schedule, Luizzi said.
Under the new schedule, all three elementary schools would run from 7:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. New Canaan High School would run from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with the seventh and eighth grades at Saxe Middle School would run from 8:35 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. The fifth and sixth grades at Saxe would run from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., under the proposed new schedule.
Advocates for the change say its advantages include: bringing start times for adolescents in line with medical recommendations; starting East, South and West Schools at the same time and having the district’s youngest students in the classroom when they have the most energy; and creating new before-school opportunities for fifth- and sixth-graders. Because the first buses could leave from the three geographically distributed elementary schools in the morning and bring neighborhood kids back to those schools—instead of running from NCHS and back, as they do now—the first bus pickup would come at about 7:06 a.m. under the new schedule (about 40 minutes later than now).
Those voicing concerns about the proposed new schedule question whether parents have been sufficiently informed about it, what effect it could have on areas such as daycare, after-school activities and athletics, and what the impact could be on elementary school children who would be starting school far earlier in most cases.
Jennifer Dalipi, a commuter and mom to one child at South School and one at Saxe, said that families with two working parents will be among those most affected, and that although the goal of the proposed new start schedule is to improve the health of New Canaan youth, “the plan we talked about tonight really gives an advantage to our seventh- through twelfth-graders.”
“If we go ahead with a plan that it doesn’t seem we are all really set on, nor does it seem from tonight that we have dotted all our I’s and crossed all our T’s on the publication of what has been put before us, that we fail our children across all of our age groups,” Dalipi said. “Our youngest will take the burden of those that are older, that should be able to make really smart decisions about how to go to bed, what the loads are that they can carry and should manage, potentially see an uptick in sicknesses in our youngest children, tardies and a decline in enthusiasm.”
In all, the anticipated costs for changing the schedules is about $954,000, Luizzi said—$733,000 for seven additional buses, $91,000 for two in-house transportation staff members, $63,000 in benefits, $62,000 for one certified staff member and $5,000 for supervisory needs on the first busing tier.
If the Board of Ed and town decide not to make a change with respect to school start times, the district’s overall budget request would be about $91.8 million, a .4% increase over current spending.
Board of Ed members asked Luizzi and the district’s director of finance and operations, Dr. Jo-Ann Keating, whether anything had been pushed out of this year’s budget on the academic side (no), whether ice hockey could get more funding in future years (it’s possible), whether the school start times scenario built into the budget is what the administration things is best for student learning at all levels (it has the most positive impact on the most children), whether Luizzi planned to meet with each school’s community about the proposed changes (yes), whether the feedback garnered at those meetings would be consolidated (yes), whether one additional bus is needed for the district regardless of changing the start schedules (yes, overall there are eight additional buses built into the proposed budget), whether there’s been an analysis done on how many teachers would be negatively impacted by the change (not by the administration though the teachers themselves probably have), whether the savings in healthcare costs is sustainable (it’s designed to be part of a sustainable system) and whether there are any identifiable trends in bus contract negotiations that would point to cost increases or savings in cases where district’s increase the number of buses they use (NCPS will know more in two years when the current contract is up).
Board of Ed member Dionna Carlson said it was important to ensure that school parents understand what’s being proposed so that they can come to meetings with specific questions.
“As a Board [member], I think I need to understand what the parent population is feeling about what is being proposed,” she said. “That goes into a big part of my decision-making. So I’m a little concerned that the parents haven’t really gotten a good sense unless they’re very engaged.”
In addition to the public meetings and workshops of the Board of Ed and its committees, Luizzi during his presentation outlined several forums where the proposal would be reviewed with groups such as the PTCs and high school PFA.
At the start of his presentation, Luizzi thanked district administrators and Board of Ed members, among others, reviewed the budget schedule and discussed the NCPS goals and accomplishments in areas including the arts, athletics, extracurriculars and academics. He also presented the following information on where New Canaan stands compared to other schools in its “district reference group”:
Per Pupil Spending Comparison
|District||Net current expenditures per pupil (2018-19)|
|Region 9 (JBHS)||$23,703|