A much-anticipated surplus transfer the Newtown Board of Education hoped to make into its non-lapsing account for specific educational needs was denied at the Board of Finance meeting after a motion to effect the $1.3 million action failed September 14 on a tied bipartisan vote.
Following nearly two-and-a-half hours of deliberations and multiple motions put forward to reach some type of compromise, finance board chair Sandy Roussas along with colleagues Ned Simpson and Matthew Mihalcik voted against the proposal, effectively defeating the motion.
The lead-up and vote triggered frustration among school board members who participated in the Zoom meeting.
Board of Education Vice Chair Dan Delia pointed out after the vote was finalized that the school district had already presented legitimate expenses the district was anticipating, or already experiencing due to the virus pandemic.
“These are real expenses,” Delia lamented. “The least you could have done was support them. I am extremely disappointed.”
School Board Chair Michelle Embree Ku also expressed frustration some time earlier, saying the school board had already shown it could be trusted to take advice from the finance board, as when her board opted out of plans to use part of its substantial 2019-20 budget surplus to pay off a security camera system lease that still had three years remaining.
“Now we’re back to square one,” Ku said. “We were trying to work with you on that, trusting it was a give-and-take relationship. We are in this with you — we are all taxpayers and want to reduce future taxpayer burden.”
As the meeting drew to a close, school board member Deborah Zukowski also weighed in by phone. She reminded the finance board that had the transfer passed, any expenditure from the non-lapsing account would have been subject to finance board authorization under her board’s administrative regulations.
But a recent statutory action by the state legislature nonetheless absolved the school board from seeking finance board authorization — a point that echoed again and again, and appeared to serve as at least partial justification for Simpson’s no vote.
“Until we have a joint [non-lapsing account] policy, all we have is statute,” Simpson said nearly two hours into the discussion. “Once the [transfer] is in there, the board of education can spend it down for anything. I’m confident we have other mechanisms for COVID-related [emergencies]. I don’t think the time to move this money is tonight.”
Roussas summed up her position on the matter in correspondence to The Newtown Bee the following morning. One of the two memos she issued is included in this week’s “Letters Hive” on page A-11.
“This budget surplus came about because of the pandemic and the closure of schools last spring,” Roussas wrote. “The primary justification provided for the purpose of the funds was to cover potential ongoing expenses related to COVID. In support of the request, the Board of Education provided a document that was used in July to submit its request for COVID relief funds from the State at a time when the directive was for districts to prepare for full-time, in-person learning.”
Escalating Expense Projections
Roussas estimated that COVID-related expenses beyond what were already budgeted for in the 2020-21 spending plan were approximately $250,000, per minutes from an April 4 school board’s CIP subcommittee meeting. But in July, Roussas said, the Board of Education submitted a revised estimate for COVID-related expenses that increased to approximately $1.5 million.
“I was surprised how the number had grown and tried to reason that it was because it was prepared with the anticipated directive for students to return to the classroom full-time,” the finance board chair said.
“A few weeks before school was scheduled to begin, we went from a full-time model to a hybrid model and, although I remain hopeful that full-time attendance will once again resume,” she continued, “the reality is that it may face an extended hybrid schedule and a possible full remote model if infections rise.”
Another issue that came into clear focus during Monday’s finance meeting, Roussas said, was that the school district already had $832,000 currently available above and beyond the surplus to address virus-related expenses.
“In addition, we are working with an operating budget that was put together by the Board of Education and approved by the Board of Finance before the pandemic hit us and there will undoubtedly be additional savings realized because of the reduced model that we are in,” the finance chair predicted.
Speaking exclusively regarding her position, Roussas added, “In the end, I could not in good conscience tie up a sum of money that could potentially be used to pass on some relief directly to our taxpayers when all the while there is a sizable sum of money readily available.”
Among several alternate motions, the first came from Mihalcik, suggesting the finance board approve transferring $426,888 from the surplus, provided it was earmarked exclusively for virus-related needs.
Roussas suggested she might support the transfer motion if it was amended to direct the district to only use the surplus for virus expenses, that the finance board would receive a monthly report on related expenditures, and that at the end of the year, any balance left from the transfer, less $200,000, would be applied to reduce the following year’s budget.
But the chair’s suggested amendment subsequently failed on a tie with members John Madzulla, Simpson, and Mihalcik voting no. Roussas then suggested and supported an amendment to make a $675,000 transfer from the surplus, but that proposal failed 5-1.
In short order, vice chair Keith Alexander did some calculations and proposed another alternative transfer of $1,269,499. He and colleague Chris Gardner both supported that amendment, but it failed 4-2.
Gardner then asked for an amendment to transfer $1 million, saying he was trying to strike a compromise to move the motion forward. But that motion also failed, again with only Gardner and Alexander supporting it.
Simpson took a stab at it, halving the amount to $500,000. But it also failed on a tie, this time with Gardner, Simpson, and Mihalcik voting against it. This led to the board reverting to the main motion, which also tied.
In the end, Roussas rightfully noted in her post-meeting notes to The Newtown Bee that “Although we disagreed on the [main motion to transfer], as a board we pledged to address and support any concrete need materializes in this coming year — whether COVID-related or not.”
The feeling to that end was so strong that the finance board concluded its September 14 meeting by unanimously supporting Simpson’s motion to send correspondence to the council stating that the town should do “everything possible” to ensure the school district is funded through 2021 for all unknown expenses.
Following the meeting, and with a goal to close out the 2020 budget looming, Newtown Finance Director Robert Tait told The Newtown Bee that there was no further recourse the school board could take, including with the Legislative Council. Tait said for all intents and purposes, there were no other alternatives to tap the 2019-20 school board surplus funds for the non-lapsing account.
But he also shared the finance board’s sentiment that town officials who now had the added district surplus to manage, would immediately act to fortify the district’s budget with transfers if COVID or any other related emergencies arose.