The Amity Board of Education in a last-ditch effort managed to convince enough voters — at least in Woodbridge and Bethany — to pass its 2022-23 budget in a third referendum on June 14. In Orange, the budget was voted down, 1,168 to 1,094.
The referendum result in Woodbridge was 792 in favor and 625 against; in Bethany, 558 in favor and 418 against. Overall, the budget passed, 2,444: 2,211. Most remarkable is the number of voters who came out to cast their ballot, growing from a total of 2,204 votes in early May to 4,655 in mid-June, showing just how contentious the vote had become.
“The two major lightning rods are the surplus and the DEI coach [for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion], said Amity Board of Education member Sean Hartshorn at the May 31 special meeting of the board. At that meeting the board endorsed a substantial budget cut, to lower the budget increase from 3.59% to 3.19%. As suggested by School Supt. Dr. Jennifer Byars, the cuts were non-instructional in nature, with the biggest portion of it achieved by lowering the medical reserve to 18%.
The May 31 meeting, which was held at the Brady Auditorium at Amity High School, was so contentious that during public comment board chairman John Belfonti had the auditorium cleared of the public. The action came after one speaker would not yield the floor after the prescribed limit of 3 minutes, and the audience shouted out, either yielding their time for him to finish or insisting he leave the microphone. After the room had been cleared, speakers were invited in, one-by-one for the remainder of time allotted for public comment. Then the board recessed for 10 minutes to give people a chance to get home and log on to follow the rest of the meeting.
Dr. K. Sudhir, Yale professor of economics, asked the superintendent for more transparency when it comes to the end-of-year surplus. “People ask and we can’t explain,” he said. “It’s in the packet every single month,” Dr. Byars responded, adding “there is not an easy way to communicate it.”
Dr. Byars said the district is holding contingencies until the end of the year. These past few winters have been relatively light in terms of snow and ice, which cannot be predicted 19 months ahead. She said usually there is money left over in the salary account, which they keep until the end of the year. “They are always moving parts,” she said.
She said they had to estimate in November of 2020 what the Excess Cost Grant payment from the state would be in May of 2022. “As we budget every year, we look at what we think is going to happen,” added Finance Director Theresa Lumas.
A major uncertainty, especially these past three years, have been with the medical reserve. Counterintuitively, the medical expenses during the pandemic were down, given that district employees delayed medical procedures or visits if they could.
The Amity District some ten years ago or so decided to “self-insure,” by creating a medical reserve. It does not use an insurance broker. However, the district does hire a consultant to keep track of pool risk and payments. Starting in July it will partner with a new consultant who recommends a lower percentage than what they budgeted for in the past.
In a subsequent letter signed by 11 Board of Education members, the board explains that a surplus is not an expense, and doesn’t add up from one year to the next. “When people estimate a $12 million cost of surplus, it is like a bank saying ‘We lent you $3 million. You kept it for 4 years, that means you owe us 12 million dollars.” No, we only owe the bank $3 million and interest. The district returns about 80% of its surplus to the member towns.
In fact, Amity Board of Education member Paul Davis of Orange addressed the Orange Board of Selectmen at its June 9 meeting, saying the district has refunded $4.4 million to the town in the last four years, monies that were appropriated by the taxpayer for the use of the Amity operations. “To my knowledge I have not gotten a penny of that money, and I don’t know where it is,” he said. “I’d like to go on record saying that needs to be researched.”
He also pointed out that the Orange budget referendum included an Amity budget number that subsequently failed at a separate referendum. “We presented a budget to the people of Orange that was inaccurate,” Davis said. By taxing its residents based on a higher school budget number than ultimately approved by the voter, the town will end up with somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 that is not appropriated for anything. “The town has to figure out a way to make the taxpayer whole,” he said.
DEI coach: The Amity board also penned a letter regarding the DEI coach, a letter signed by 11 of its 13 members. “We want to offer the best to ALL our children,” they wrote, adding that the lack of diversity and inclusion not only affect student learning. In school ratings, Amity was ranked 10th of 11 districts, they said, with its worst score being in diversity.
The DEI curriculum will not divide the student body into oppressed and oppressors, as feared by some of the public speakers. Instead, a science teacher might teach about Rosalind Franklin, the x-ray crystallographer overlooked for the Nobel Prize for the structure of DNA or John Nash, the Nobel Laureate in Economics who struggled with schizophrenia and inspired the movie A Beautiful Mind. “The DEI coach won’t just help teachers comply with new laws – they’ll help teachers identify resources, plan, and deliver lessons in a responsive way,” the letter explains.
Dr. Byars pointed out that there are numerous initiatives that the state expects school districts to implement, and teachers are looking for help in that regard. By hiring a coach from within the district, they can tailor it to the local needs rather than getting a cookie-cutter training.
Board member Donna Schuster agreed. “When you hire a consultant, they have no skin in the game.” Jennifer Turner suggested offering a Parent Academy program to clarify what the DEI coach does or doesn’t do.
In the meantime, the diversity coach position was removed from the operating budget and is paid for by a grant.
By Bettina Thiel, Woodbridge Town News Correspondent