New Fairfield superintendent seeks 6% budget increase as schools see 'significant academic recovery' from COVID

New Fairfield Superintendent Kenneth Craw is recommending a 5.99 percent school spending increase for 2023-24 to continue the progress the district has made since the COVID pandemic.

New Fairfield Superintendent Kenneth Craw is recommending a 5.99 percent school spending increase for 2023-24 to continue the progress the district has made since the COVID pandemic.

New Fairfield Resident Trooper’s Office / Contributed photo

NEW FAIRFIELD — Superintendent Kenneth Craw is recommending a 5.99 percent increase in school spending for 2023-24 to continue the progress the district has made since the COVID pandemic.

Like other school districts, recovering from pandemic-related declines in student achievement is a priority in New Fairfield. Thanks in part to its investment in coaching and intervention, Craw says the school district has “defied norms” and seen “significant academic recovery.”

“New Fairfield is seeing a higher rate of growth than other towns in the state,” he said during his FY24 budget presentation last Thursday. “We are seeing an achievement level that is comparable to prepandemic.”

Even with the gains that have been made, Craw said learning recovery is still needed and said addressing students’ social-emotional needs remains a priority in New Fairfield schools.

“We’re realizing continued academic growth and want to continue that trajectory into next year,” said Craw, whose recommended $45.5 million operating budget for FY24 reflects a $2.5 million year-over-year increase.

The spending plan — which aims to promote a healthy learning environment, provide high-quality instruction and curriculum and foster continued academic growth — calls for $840,000 in funding for 10 positions that were originally added by using federal grants.

They include a speech and language pathologist, board-certified behavior analyst, high school and middle school special education teachers, a kindergarten teacher, third-grade teacher, reading and math interventionists, a middle school STEAM teacher and a middle school gifted and talented teacher — all of which Craw said are “valuable” positions.

The addition of those positions accounts for about one-third of the proposed 5.99 percent budget increase.

“Before our budget process began, we knew we had to bring these 10 critical positions above the line,” said Carrie DePuy, the district’s business and operations director. “That was before we were able to address our primary budget drivers … so the path to 5.99 was extremely difficult.”

With $28.6 million toward salaries, payroll accounts for nearly 63 percent of the proposed operating budget, which also includes $10.9 million for non-payroll expenses, $4.9 million for health insurance and $1.5 million for other employee benefits.

Thanks to the successful reallocation of ESSER grant funds, the district carries over $390,000 in COVID relief money to 2023-24 — bringing the FY24 spending increase from 6.9 percent to 5.99 percent, and resulting in a total recommended operating budget of $45.5 million.

“Knowing this was going to be a challenging year, we managed our ESSER funds very well by either defraying, delaying or removing some expenses, which gives us an offset into next year’s budget,” Craw said.

His 2023-24 school spending plan calls for adjustments in certified staff with the addition of a part-time occupational therapist and part-time strings teacher, and the elimination of one full-time preschool teacher. 

At the same time, it includes 6.4 non-certified special education staff positions due to an increased need for paraprofessionals.

While overall enrollment in New Fairfield has been “stable,” Craw said the district is seeing an uptick in students with special needs. 

“During the course of this current school year, we’ve had students come in with existing IEPs, requiring para support and also some needs have emerged during the year,” he said. The costs of the additional paraprofessional positions would total about $160,000, Craw said.

Capital projects

Craw’s FY24 recommended sending plan includes a $343,575 request for several capital projects, which would take in a $200,000 offset from the school board’s capital and nonrecurring fund.

There vehicles need to be replaced, DePuy said, and the district is also starting to see increased costs associated with its aging middle school.

“We’ve done a great job prioritizing what we need but … we have significant needs that we have to address,” said DePuy.

Three of the seven capital requests are middle school-related projects — $317,470 for an oil tank, $62,000 to replace flooring in the cafeteria and nearby lobby, and $25,000 for exterior masonry updates.

The cafeteria and lobby flooring — which had a life expectancy of 15 years — is over 20 years old and starting to fall apart. According to  Phil Ross, the school district’s facilities director, the plan is to replace it with vinyl tile that has a life expectancy of 25-plus years.

The other FY24 capital requests include $60,255 for a dump truck, $46,000 for a replacement van for student transportation and $33,000 for air-conditioning units at Meeting House Hill School. 

Money from New Fairfield’s 2021-22 education budget surplus will cover the cost of the middle school flooring and Meeting House air-conditioning projects. The Board of Finance voted last week to transfer $95,000 from the surplus to the Board of Education’s nonlapsing account for the two capital requests.

The school board will hold workshops Jan. 24, Jan. 25 and Jan. 31, before adopting a FY24 budget on Feb. 2. 

A budget public hearing is scheduled for March 4, followed by finance board reviews on March 8, March 22 and March 29. New Fairfield’s Annual Town Meeting is slated for the week of April 24.