Volume 3-Issue 1 March 2023
Newtown 2023 Budget Newsletter
Dear Newtown Community,
This past year has seen many challenges post pandemic including increased inflation, supply line challenges, and increased property taxes. Most of the citizens in Newtown are particularly focused on making ends meet as well as financial security for the future. More than ever, people are looking for governmental entities to scrutinize expenditures for maximum efficiency in a context of long term benefit.
Traditionally, the governance in Newtown has sought fiscal responsibility and good stewardship to ensure that tax dollars are well spent for the public good. With the Newtown Public Schools, the citizenry expects the highest quality education as an investment for our children’s future. Preparation for the next fiscal year's budget begins nearly nine months before the public referendum which takes place on the fourth Tuesday every April. Teachers, administrators, and support staff begin the process with assumptions to maximize delivery of educational services in a context of efficiency and stewardship. The budget process has multiple opportunities for the public to engage before they cast their vote, whether it is attending Board of Education budget meetings, speaking at Board of Finance public hearings, or speaking during the Legislative Council's deliberations. Various means of communication are provided to assist the public with understanding the process and content of budget deliberations. Most, if not everyone, agrees that citizen engagement is a prerequisite for highest quality governmental services. The Volume 3 Issue 1 edition of District Highlights provides an inside look on critical factors that drive our budget as well as some of the dedicated people behind the scenes that make it all happen. The Board of Education Communications Sub Committee is proud to present some of that information in user friendly fashion via this newsletter. We encourage the public to continue following the budget process to conclusion with attentive eyes and ears. It is really a very interesting process to watch your local government at work.
BoE Communications Subcommittee Chair
Superintendent's Requested Operational Budget Plan 2023-2024
By Chris Melillo, Superintendent
As we reach recovery from the initial wave of pandemic-induced measures, schools have faced severe staff shortages, higher rates of absenteeism, addressing interrupted learning, and providing mental health support. The global pandemic impacted teaching and learning, prompting a unique shift in our practices, including the implementation of remote learning and the use of digital resources to engage students. Following a presentation by our Assistant Superintendent on October 5th, 2022, and January 3rd, 2023, it is clear that we are on the right path to recovery as our students are learning at an accelerated pace. Although we are beginning to see learning success, the impact of the pandemic will last well into the future, and this will necessitate adjustments to staffing, instructional resources, and specialized support.
Efforts to meet the academic and social-emotional needs of our students played a critical role in the design of our 2023-24 operational plan. Newtown staff and leaders would focus their work on meeting students' needs, providing high-quality instruction, offering a variety of academic pathways, providing appropriate support, and creating safe, respectful learning environments for all students. Our operational plan development aligned with our Mission in Newtown’s Strategic Plan – ensuring we have created an environment that represents:
- High Expectations
- Quality Instruction
- Continuous Improvements
- and Civic Responsibility
During volatile economic times and facing unprecedented challenges, it is important to remind ourselves that ensuring that our students reach their academic potential is our primary mission. The recently released scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are consistent with the widespread suspicion that the pandemic took a major toll on public school students in the United States.
We are faced with Federal ESSERS funding ending, while student academic and social-emotional needs are projected to still exist. We are tasked to create a budget that supports programming while considering the financial stressors in our community. According to Harvard University professor, Dr. Richard Elmore, educators can best serve their students by actively engaging them in classroom instruction that emphasizes rigorous and relevant content, taught by highly skilled teachers. This model of improved student learning is referred to as the “instructional core.” But most importantly by protecting and enhancing the instructional core and strengthening our practice children become more engaged in student-centered classrooms where they are encouraged to generate and apply content actively. The focus of this year’s budget will be to protect and enhance the instructional core which includes three interdependent components: teachers’ knowledge and skill, students’ engagement, and academically challenging content.
By streamlining processes, finding more cost-efficient options, and reducing the costs of running our schools, we can allocate more funds to teaching and learning. Qualified and motivated teachers are the single most important school-based determinant of quality education. Developing strategies to cut costs while resulting in more cost-efficient schools that can do more for our students while staying within our budget.
The Board of Education is recommending a 4.7% increase over this year.
Our 2023-24 budget maintains and enhances quality services and has the best interest of our students and staff in mind. Further, it supports all staff and leaders in their ability to improve the academic and social-emotional learning landscape for each student, including identifying students who will need to re-engage in school and find academic success in the year(s) ahead following a worldwide pandemic. The proposed operational plan meets BOE priorities in class size, technology, mental health resources, funding for special education, and the development of academic pathways that promote the diverse needs and interests of all students. Investments in our students now, more than ever, will represent a commitment to their future as capable learners, influential leaders, and civic-minded community members.
Staffing Challenges & Costs
By Dan Cruson
In the 2022-2023 school year many districts around the state, and even country, have
experienced issues with staffing their schools. Newtown has not been immune from these challenges, and we are suffering from shortages in some crucial areas. One of the biggest areas that we are experiencing a shortage of staff in is Special Education. Paraeducators have been especially hard to find, with around 15 positions currently being open. In addition, the school system is looking for 5 Behavioral Therapists to support students whose IEPs specifically require this specialized position. Unlike Paras, the district has had to go to an outside agency to fill those positions while continued efforts to find qualified applicants continue. Unfortunately this comes with a cost, each position filled by the outside agency ends up costing about 3x what it would if we had someone as a member of the Newtown Public Schools staff. In the end, this has resulted in an anticipated unexpected cost of $180,000 for the school year.
Security has been another area of concern over the past couple of years, with qualified security guards choosing to take private sector jobs or jumping from one district to another regularly. The market right now is very open for individuals with the specialized qualifications that being a school security officer requires and private sector salaries and benefits are far more desirable then a public school district can offer. This leaves school districts fighting over a smaller pool of individuals willing to take on the role. In Newtown we have been able to get by with the security personnel that we have and have been able to hire when positions open, but there have been times when staffing has been tight because of illnesses. The Newtown Police Department has been asked to help fill in when they have an officer available, although they have also been struggling with hiring lately. The third big area of concern has been transportation, both in and out of district. Finding drivers for school buses has been difficult for a long time, but the problem was made worse by the COVID 19 pandemic. Typically school bus driving attracts two types of people, older individuals who may have retired from other careers and parents (especially mothers) with young children. The recent pandemic made driving undesirable to both groups as the chance of catching and passing on COVID 19 is very easy within enclosed buses. So a large number of existing drivers left due to health concerns and increased stress. In addition, school bus driving does not come with a high pay and has limited hours when compared to other jobs that an individual with a CDL can find. So much like security positions, it is hard for public school districts to compete with positions in the private sector or working for municipalities. Currently All Star, who provides in district transportation, has exactly the number of drivers needed to drive the buses required to transport students to and from school in the district on a daily basis. However, that means if a driver gets sick then there is no one to fill in. It also means there are no buses available to transport students to and from athletic events, as those buses are generally needed while Elementary and Reed students are being transported home from school. To cover the athletic teams, the district has been required to hire coach buses which is far more expensive.
For out of district transportation, EdAdvance has not been able to provide enough drivers to get our Special Education students to the programs in other towns that they are attending. This has meant that Newtown Public Schools has had to contract with other companies to fill the gap, at a higher rate than we contracted with EdAdvance for. The unexpected cost of these other providers for the 22-23 school year is around $130,000.
Staffing the past couple of years has been difficult to say the least, and while we have managed to recover in some areas such as building subs and custodians, as you can see there are still areas of concern that we continue to work on. These areas do cause stress on the school’s overall budget although hopefully this will be something that will continue to improve over time. If you or someone you know would be interested in learning more about positions within the school district, you can see all current vacancies within the schools at
https://www.applitrack.com/newtown/onlineapp/default.aspx and bus driving vacancies at
I would like to thank the Newtown Public School Director of Business & Finance, Tanja Vadas, for answering my questions and providing the data for this article.
By Janet Kuzma
When school started back in August teachers, staff, and students were all excited to finally be looking forward to a more normal school year and putting pandemic protocols behind us. While we have continued to have a normal pre-pandemic school year, we are still seeing some negative lasting effects from the past few years. Across the country, researchers and educators have been busy analyzing post-pandemic data which has shown a decline in student performance levels. One of the most significant issues public schools are facing is “Interrupted Learning”, formerly known as learning loss. Research has shown that the effects from this interrupted learning is not uniform across student groups or regions, however, we have seen some of these impacts here in Newtown which is why it became a focus for our 2023-2024 budget.
I would like to thank Anne Uberti, Assistant Superintendent, for taking the time to answer the following questions regarding Interrupted Learning and being a driver in this budget.
1.) In what areas have you seen the most impact from interrupted learning?
Our data shows that the overall performance of the District in most areas is very close to pre-pandemic levels. However, performance is not uniform across the grades. In looking for trends, some grades appear to be performing better than others. One trend we have noticed on iReady testing is that the growth rate of learning for middle school students lags behind students in grades 2 through 6. Another trend that we have noted is that while our math performance is lower on iReady than reading, the number of students reaching near proficient or proficient was significantly higher than for reading. This was likely because more students have more growth to make but it was very encouraging, nonetheless.
Of course, trends tell only one part of the story. We also have to look at each individual student’s performance and learning profile. In doing so, school-based MTSS (Multi-tiered Systems of Support) teams identify students who are not meeting expected performance as well as students who are not demonstrating expected growth. They then look deeper at those students' performance on other measures, including classroom performance, as well as historical performance in order to determine possible causes and appropriate interventions.
2.) What has been added to this budget to help address the issue of interrupted learning?
The District’s focus is always on delivering a rigorous and relevant curriculum to students and providing professional development for teachers to do so. These are two of the biggest factors that can impact student achievement. This budget ensures the ongoing development of curriculum, the adoption of a new K-4 reading curriculum, and training for teachers in the areas of reading, math, science and social studies.
3.) What goals have been set for the following year to help students, who are struggling, show growth?
Our school-based MTSS teams meet regularly to establish learning goals for individual students who are struggling and to review progress related to those goals. In terms of overall performance, our school leadership teams are in the second year of data analysis training. We have worked extensively on helping these teams set school and teacher goals that are in alignment with what the data shows is needed to improve. From there, they develop action steps and then report on their progress mid and end of year. This work is beginning to take hold and will continue into next school year.
While we don’t expect to see this issue being solved in the next year, I believe we are taking the right steps to begin addressing this challenge. I am confident our team of dedicated administrators and staff will be continue to work hard in the next year to increase student achievement.
~ A Closer Look ~
Board of Education Finance & Human Resources Department
By Don Ramsey
Moving in to a “Closer Look”, it is good for the public to see a little bit beyond the expertise of our Superintendent to present a sound budget. Indeed, Mr. Melillo has engaged a dynamic group of central office staff to work with educators and support personnel across the schools to establish needs assessments for materials, services, and facilities. Added to that, with the award winning format of high graphic budget notebooks, are cost data reports for transportation and lunch providers as well as extracurricular activities that Newtown is known for. If the reader takes a moment to see a more personal perspective of key contributors to budgets, then we believe confidence in the entire process increases. With that in mind, I was pleased to interview three Central Office individuals:
Tanja Vadas, Director of Business and Finance
Initially when I walked into Tanja’s office, I was surprised to see an unassuming engaging place with many family photos included among the usual round conference table, desk, and computer. Everything appeared to be exceptionally well organized. I inquired informally about her personal interests outside the position she occupies along with how she ended up in Newtown. Her love of the community was an overriding theme as she talked about raising kids, love of horses, and her enthusiasm for sports. She actually plays competitive adult hockey and is known as one of the “Battleaxes” out of Brewster, NY in her spare time.
Tanja graduated Western Connecticut State University with an undergraduate degree in Business and went on from there to work in various private sector businesses including “Waterworks”. She is proud to say that she worked up the ladder to higher level finance positions after starting out with bookkeeping and accounting responsibilities. Coming to Newtown was really “meant to be” as she sought employment here to be closer to her children attending school. Tanja speaks highly of all those who mentored her through the ranks to her present position and feels a high comradery with other departments and staff within the central office. She also complimented, in generous fashion, all those with whom she supervises in the Business Department. She feels her own experiences in accounting, payroll, bookkeeping, and accounts payable helps her to be a much better Director of Business.
Upon my inquiry about the “budget process”, Tanja was quick to express great sensitivity to the economic plight of the tax paying public with a strong desire to facilitate budget organization that would be easy for people to understand. She emphasized “effective communication” with building level personnel in a process that lasts nearly eight months from beginning to end. She considers it very important to “empower others” when describing her leadership style. Her monthly presentations to the Board of Education provides insight to “budget fluidity issues” and other updates for BOE members to maintain appropriate oversight throughout the year. When asked about challenges associated with the budget process, Tanja noted that the process is lengthy and that “no crystal ball” can predict changes in plant operation, special education and other mandates, as well as other needs modifications that can sometimes shift between budget line items within the scope of accepted policy. She wants to encourage the public to remain engaged throughout the process by means of reading school level and central office newsletters, various articles in the print media, as well as attending various municipal board meetings where possible. She shares the vision of empathy for tax burdens, particularly of recent, with the most efficient budget to maintain high quality public education in Newtown.
Angela Walsh, Assistant Director of Business
The Assistant Director of Business provides an analytical link between budget expenditure line
items and the impact they have on the total budget having to do with budget presentations. In
addition, “real time” information is provided during contract negotiations and other matters
relating to various financial reports to the Board of Education. Angela Walsh recently was
appointed to the position of Assistant Director of Business with the resignation of Bjorn Burke. She is very pleased to work in a school district that her children attended before going on to college and careers.
Angela brings a wealth of experiences to Newtown having worked in the area of finances for
numerous “mom and pop shops” in the Hamden area as well as a “Grants Coordinator” for the
Hamden Public Schools. In her position of Grants Coordinator, Angela became intimately
familiar with the Connecticut State Department of Education as well as other funding agencies
for innovative programs and financial relief options for school districts. She held a related
position with the Hartford Public Library as the accounting assistant working closely with the grant manager, as well as a senior International accountant with “Subway International” in the early part of her career.
Angela also has strong ties to the Newtown Community as a resident and a parent of two
children. When asked about some of challenges of her position, Angela spoke about her
sensitivity to the tax paying public. She acknowledged the financial challenges of the elderly in
Newtown whose children have grown. However, she was quick to say that most are in favor of
investing in students who have yet to graduate. She also wants the public to know that
during the course of the school year, some money is expended in increments according to
encumbrances set up with vendors for educational materials and services. Along with other
fluid factors related to the budget, predictions matching reality is sometimes a challenge.
Angela also encourages the public to be aware of the budget process from the time the
superintendent issues his/her proposed budget to the Board of Education all the way through
other town boards and eventually to a public vote on the Budget Referendum in late April. Like
her immediate supervisor Tanja, Angela remains “focused on kids” with effective
communication and efficiency during the long budget process. She made specific reference to
the Newtown Bee coverage of budget hearings and articles that inform the public about the
budget process from December through April of each year. She is very happy to be a part of
the central office business team. She really enjoyed participating in the budget presentation to the Board of Education at their meeting in January with all the “back and forth” questions.
Suzanne D’Eramo, Director of Human Resources
As most people are aware, the “lion’s share” of the public school budget in Newtown involves
line items for staff salaries and benefits. That is an area of the budget that can impose
challenges to the district for maintaining high quality staffing in a context of ever changing
demographics and economic conditions. As the Director of Human Resources, Suzanne
D’Eramo expressed a keen awareness of her duties that impact the budget including contract
negotiations, hiring of staff with commensurate salary administration, and the burdens of staff
reductions/attrition, should the need arise.
With a degree in Business Administration, Suzanne obtained management positions in the retail business sector in Long Island before taking on business oriented responsibilities with her husband’s family contracting business. During this time Suzanne also pursued job opportunities in the school system. She was animated to describe how much she loved that job. Similarly to our Director of Business, Tanja Vadas, she felt drawn to work in the community she loved as a 28 year resident with “opportunities just falling into place”. Suzanne is very grateful for many people who “mentored” her through the ranks until her eventual appointment as the Director of Personnel under the previous Superintendent, Lorrie Rodrigue almost 6 years ago. She expressed valuable memories working directly with another previous Superintendent, Evan Pitkoff, as personnel secretary as well as being a full time secretary to then Director of Personnel, Joan Libby. All of that she feels, prepared her for the important
challenges of her present position.
Suzanne is also acutely sensitive to the plight of local tax payers while reconciling that with the need to provide competitive compensation for maintaining the highest quality staff. Working with Board of Education hired attorneys for contract negotiations, Suzanne appreciates their value to facilitate logical and civil discourse throughout the lengthy process for various bargaining units while ensuring sound contract provisions for salaries, benefits, and working conditions. Along with her previous positions in Newtown, Suzanne is even more adept with the workings of the Board of Education. She is often called upon to review Connecticut State Statutes and Connecticut State Department of Education policies pertaining to labor relations, working conditions, and other matters involving disciplinary situations in the rare event that may occur.
Suzanne has a strong vision of her position as Director of Human Resources with an emphasis on “sensitivity to humanity” in concert with maintaining fiscal efficiency. She is most proud of her accomplishments of retaining specific employees during times of economic hardships by means of attrition and allowable personnel transfers of a voluntary nature. She is most
delighted when staff perceive her as approachable, logical, and compassionate.
While Newtown Public Schools is seeing several grants sunsetting at the end of the current school year, which has resulted in a $765,501 increase for the 2023-2024 school year, there are many more active and pending grants still offsetting the budget. These grants include:
VOCA Grant/CT Office of Victims Services – NHS Social Worker and District Family Assistance Coordinator
Child Health and Development Institute CBITS Payment – Trauma/Mental Health Support and Student Support
CSDE IDEA 611/619 – Academic Support and services to individuals with disabilities
CSDE Title I – Assistance for children from low-income families
CSDE Title II – Supporting Effective Instruction
CSDE Title III – Instruction for ELL to improve language efficiency and academic achievement
CSDE Title IV – Social and Emotional Learning and other needs at Middle Gate
CSDE Perkins Entitlement/CSDE Perkins Supplemental Enhancement – Career and Technical education learning opportunities
CT DOA – Hawley HVAC Project
NRWIB/CYEP – Summer and Year-round work experience opportunities