Last night, Thursday February 24th, 2023, the 9 member Stamford Board of Education voted to approve the 2023-24 operating budget in a 7 to 2 vote, with members Hamman and Esses voting against the budget.
Before the vote, Hamman made it clear that she would be voting against the budget because she felt like much of it was put together in haste - "it's like rush hour" with this new curriculum and "I have to question the quality. Teachers are concerned." Hamman continued by saying we lack the data to prove what we're paying for works. She asked for data on how the 14 new building administrators added in the last couple of years are yielding results in student learning. She said the budget should tell the story of student learning and administrative accountability, and this budget doesn't do that. She ended by saying, "We should be moving forward, not backwards. With our Math proficiency at 32% and Reading proficiency at 40%, we're going backwards."
Esses' reasoning was not as clear, but based on his failed attempt to slash the budget in many areas, it seems he would like to see the BOE look at their expenditures in many areas and ask if we're really getting the most value for our tax dollars.
Before the board had their discussion though, the public was given an opportunity to speak. 5 people spoke in total, with 4 of them criticizing the budget and 1 asking for money to be invested in completing the work to re-write our very outdated board policies. The criticisms ranged from lack of transparency to the lack of attention paid to the fast approaching "fiscal cliff" to accounting for federal funding from the pandemic. Our co-founder Stephanie Edmonds asked "Where is the money? What is the value we are getting for our tax dollars? Don't just pass this budget through, demand an audit!"
Of particular note was Nataliya Trofort, the mother of a special education student who spoke at January's public comment about the denial of a Free and Appropriate Public Education for her son Elijah and how he continues to be bullied at West Hill High School. Mrs. Trofort told the board, "the millions of dollars on paper for special education are not making it into the classroom." The Stamford Public School district is required to respond to the Connecticut Human Rights & Opportunity complaint filed by the Troforts by today, Friday, February 24th (we will bring you this full story very soon).
Once it is posted, you can watch a recording of the meeting here: cityofstamford.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=3
Here is our summary of the meeting following public comment:
Esses moved to pass the increase in health benefits and workers compensation, about $1.8 million dollars (these are based on estimates provided by the city's analysts and the final numbers may be slightly different)
Pioli asked if we could make up some of this money from the Education Cost Sharing Grant; Fealey said possibly but we won't know what those numbers are until the state tells us - could be 850K or 500K, need to wait and see, but yes, there will be some state funds that come in from ECS; Lucero pointed out this is usually how it happens, but the timeline is usually later, so it's not usually part of the budget conversation
The vote passed 8-1, with Pioli voting against
Hamman proposes adding $6,900 to the budget to hire Connecticut Association of Boards of Eduction (CABE), a professional company to guide them through the policy update process (Hamman is head of the policy committee)
Heftmen questioned the necessity of using CABE because they did in 2015; CABE doesn't write the policy, we have their recommendations and the board has to do the work
Pioli would support using CABE because she felt it was valuable last time and they do support you writing policy; the work stopped because the baord had a different focus in 2015
Hamman correctst the record saying CABE was used in 2013-14 and she thinks they can provide suggestions and examples of policies to significantly cut down on the work if they had to start from scratch; problem was last time we never fully took advantage of the service because the board went in a different direction
Addition to budget approved 9-0
George proposes $124,700 addition to the budget to increase per pupil discretionary funds for principals - $10/student in middle and high school; $5/student in elementary school; says amount has trended downward recently and wants to restore
Esses said he thinks this is "solution in search of a problem" and he won't support this addition because Superintendent said herself the building principals do not have an issue covering discretionary costs and if they do need funds, the district has been able to provide them
Heftmen said she would normally support and doesn't like that we've gone backwards in this type of spending, but hesitates to do it now with the current fiscal situation; suggested waiting until reallocation to see where things are.
Pioli says she will be approving the dollar amount tonight, but when reallocation happens she will have a number of proposals to amend how we're spending that money (Pioli was recently appointed to the open seat on the board and didn't have time to meet with the Superintendent to fully discuss these changes).
Esses proposes cutting summer school for 4th - 8th grades
Pioli suggests amending to be only 6th-8th grades and then look at retention of the knowledge students gain in elementary school and hold middles school administrators accountable to maintaining those levels.
Heftmen says the budget dollar amount cannot officially be tied to ensuring retention and that she won't support because the students in summer school are the ones who were most impacted by the pandemic and she would like to see them have at least one more year of summer support and then they can reassess the data to see where these student are and revisit the motion then
Lucero wants summer school for at least one more year and then over this next year they are rolling out new curricula and will in that context discuss over structure of the school day and calendar year. She will present the board next year with that new plan and asks that summer school be kept in place as is for this year. (SPU commentary: we need to start asking questions about this now!!!)
Hamman asks for the data is used to determine who goes to summer school and the data that shows the work done in summer school translates to learning for students
Lucero said they use mid-year data: K-5 dibbles; Middle School/High School
The proposal was amended to reflect Pioli's decision of only cutting 6th-8th grade summer school, but it failed 4 to 5 with only Hamman, Esses, Butler, and Pioli voting yes and the other 5 members voting no.
Esses proposes cutting 95k for unused non-union central office secretary to the superintendent, but to keep the FTE for future use
Heftmen ask Lucero if that is okay and Lucero said yes, so long as the FTE is maintained
Esses proposes cutting 70k to buy caps and gowns for every senior
Heftmen spoke with Fealey and revealed this is the first year the district is doing this and so they don't actually know how much the gowns will cost, it could be much less. She wants to keep the number as is and then readjust during reallocation when they know the actual number, which she thinks will be far less than 70k (SPU commentary: how can we not know????)
Pioli asks about the account each school has of about $2k from cafeteria sales
Fealey says that is the healthy food grant and typically gets spent at the discretion of the PTO and principal
Butler asks what we have done on this in the past and what building principals have done to ensure every student has a cap and gown
Esses says if his memory is accurate they don't have evidence of a single student ever not being able to get a cap and gown; suggest we continue with the old regime of families buying and schools using any discretionary funds available to ensure any students truly unable gets one
Heftmen says this is a philosophical difference and that she sees this as an equity issue; if we're going to require it, we should provide it
cut passes 5-4 with Butler, Hamman, Cheri, Esses, and Pioli voting yes
Esses proposes cutting 330k in security upgrades
Pioli asks about the grant from Lamont for security; Lucero says the district is still working on the application, it's not due until the end of the month and she will report back. Pioli follows up by suggesting using the ESSR grant fund
Fealey says we could, but security wants this to be a regular item in the annual budget and not a one time expense as the ESSR grant covers
Hamman says we need our security and parents need to know we are putting resources into keeping their kids safe
cut fails 1-8 with Esses being the only yes vote
Esses proposes cutting 12 security guards (59k per year, total of 708k) from each elementary school
Pioli asks for clarification on which schools; Esses says all k-5 schools, not k-8 schools; Pioli says can we amend to only be schools within a certain distance from the police station have their security guards cut?
Hamman encourages us to keep security and keep improving their performance
cut fails 1-8 with Esses being the only yes vote
The BOE then went on to approve the operating budget in a 7-2 vote and the grants budget 9-0.