MONROE — Several weeks ago, the Board of Finance provided a list of questions to the Board of Education in preparation for its review of the school department’s 2021-22 proposed budget.

School Superintendent Joseph Kobza and members of the Board of Education were present at the finance board’s Thursday, April 1, workshop to answer those questions and any others the board might have as discussion winds down on this year’s proposed school and municipal budgets.

Mr. Kobza took the questions one at a time, beginning with the requested capital purchase of a Ford F-350 that would be used for plowing, among other things. Mr. Kobza explained there was no savings to be realized by working in collaboration with the town’s Public Works Department as that department would have to somehow add capacity to take on the new task.

The second question, regarding a settlement over payment to a magnet school, had been taken care of the previous meeting, with finance members agreeing to remove it from the school board’s operating budget and handle it as a capital expense.

Questions about benefits followed, with Finance Director Ron Bunovsky explaining the town and school department will have to estimate a potential increase in medical insurance costs at about 5 to 6%, given current information. Those numbers do not become more solid until later in the year, he said.

The finance board’s request for a cost per student estimate and trend was calculated, but with the caveat that the board’s request that the number be calculated using the formula of total budget divided by the number of students is not the same way that the state or any other town does it.

Comparing the numbers to any other town would not be comparing apples to apples, Mr. Kobza stressed. That said, the numbers he gave were as follows: $17,552 (17-18 school year), $18,007 (18-19 school year), $18,225 (19-20 school year), $18,403 (20-21 school year) and $19,243 (projected for the 21-22 school year).

A question on starting teacher salaries and teacher salary averages also prompted a disclaimer. Mr. Kobza explained the current starting salary for teachers in Monroe placed it somewhere next the third or fourth highest in the local area, but the average salary at the opposite end, for those having reached the maximum salary, placed the district in about the middle among local school districts.

Coming up with an average is problematic, he said, because each district has a different mix of teachers. Monroe, for example, has about 30 teachers in the first six years of their career and about 180 at the top.

That combination means that the average salary will be much higher than for districts with a large number in the beginning stages and fewer nearing retirement.

As to enrollment, Mr. Kobza said the district has seen significant growth in the past two years. Up until then, numbers had been declining and had been expected to continue declining.

A discussion on the shared position of finance director prompted Board of Education Chairman Donna Lane to explain that the board loves Mr. Bunovsky and sees no issue with continuing the agreement that allows him to work for both the town and the education department, but that the board must look at the position and not the person.

Board members are concerned about what might happen when Mr. Bunovsky decides to retire, so they want to be assured the job-sharing will continue to be a positive experience even then.

Mr. Kobza tackled the next issue: the location of the STEM program. Jockey Hollow Middle School was originally built to house two grades, he explained, not three. Housing the STEM program at Masuk High School allowed the district to close Chalk Hill School and moved the sixth grade into Jockey Hollow.

There is no way the district can house all three middle school grades in the building, if that includes the students in the STEM program. The building should optimally house about 675 students, he said. It currently houses 784.

A question about the district’s ability to negotiate more favorable contracts with food service and transportation required a bit of explanation on both. Ms. Lane explained the federal government actually provides the framework for the food service contract, and the government has been reimbursing them for costs under the free meals program the district is currently offering.

Mr. Kobza said Sodexho, the food service company, has been working with the district as much as possible to mitigate the unexpected costs that occurred as the number of meals served was reduced dramatically during Covid.

Ms. Lane also explained the Governor’s Executive Orders required the district to pay for bus transportation during Covid closures in order to help keep the companies in business and ready to transport students when schools reopened.

Darleen Fensore, director of Student Support Services, spoke about the unpredictability of special education costs. Each year the district has to conduct a review of an eligible student’s individualized education plan to determine if adjustments should be made.

Between now and June, the district will be holding up to 12 PPTs (Planning and Placement Team) per day to get these reviews completed in a timely fashion as well as hold new PPTs for students who have been identified as possibly needing additional assistance.

Mr. Kobza completed the education department’s presentation by discussing the district’s five-year capital needs budget. He noted priority items, including the removal of underground fuel storage tanks at Masuk High School, the replacement of controls on the elevator at Masuk, structural work needed at the rear of Monroe Elementary School, and the purchase of new laptops as part of the district’s technology needs.

Finance member Steve Kirsch asked what items the education department may wish to see restored, if funding were available, but he was cautioned by finance Chairman Michael Manjos that the board cannot interfere with the education board’s autonomy in developing its own budget.

The finance board can only determine a final budget total, it has no line item authority, he explained.

As the meeting wound down, Mr. Kirsch asked if there were any future needs the finance board should know moving forward, such as costs associated with new graduation requirements.

Mr. Kobza said the graduation requirements go up to 25 credits next year and new programming might be needed, but right now the details were not known.

He said it was possible the district would need to consider supplemental programming for regular education students, such as summer school, but that was also unknown at this time.

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