History: Bad news and big dues for Newtown.

Cinderella decided to take a look at the Newtown Board of Education budget for the 2011-2012 school year. The budget, approved on 5-17-11, was for $67,971,427, with an increase of 1.16%.

Mind-numbing and eye-straining though it was, Cinderella’s search turned up anomalies characteristic of the Sandy Hook saga.

There are strange divergences, with numbers bouncing all over the place so that the two budget documents still available for perusal would almost seem to be for two totally different towns.

What follows is a sampling of line-item weirdness from the 2011-12 school year. It isn’t possible to point out all of the oddities in these documents, so I’ve chosen to focus on only a few.

As always, if a dear reader can offer a better explanation or analysis, please share. Cinderella wholly supports free, open-source information – and isn’t afraid to admit her silly mistakes!

Bad News: “The Superintendent’s Estimate of Expenditures for 2011-2012.” Click hereThis is likely the January 2011 version of the budget that was passed in May 2011, but it isn’t dated, so we don’t know exactly when it was entered into the public record.

The initial ask was for a 5.76% increase. That is breathtaking. But this document doesn’t actually cough up the exact figure. Ultimately, the ask gets scaled back to a 1.16% increase.

So for the purpose of simplicity, let’s just focus on building and maintenance issues and ignore staffing and other matters that came up the same year. (If anyone would like to delve into other issues, please have at it – all hands on deck.)

Bad News lists the following long-term school maintenance costs on page 39:

Bad News - Long-term Maintenance

Sandy Hook is slated for $197,500 of expenditures for maintenance in 2011-12, but only $24,500 (“status quo”) was being spent on Sandy Hook’s maintenance needs presumably at the time of the report.

Note that Hawley can anticipate receiving $98,500 in 2011-12 in this version.

And the system-wide total for 2011-12 long-term maintenance items is: $815,500. (The term “system-wide” here seems to be a sum, not a reference to grounds or shared buildings.)

Bad News just gets badder and less specific. On page 38, it lists a goal of $2.5 million in maintenance and restoration projects for schools over a  five-year period, without itemizing costs.

How did the Superintendent arrive at this number? It must have been a guesstimate.

Big Dues: “Newtown Schools Board of Education Approved Budget for the 2011-2012 School Year.” Click here.  This is the BOE budget that was passed in May 2011.

See page 47 for a very different building maintenance chart from the one in the previous budget proposal. The numbers, in fact, except for Reed, might be for an entirely different school district:Building and Maintenance chart from BOE 2011-2012Sandy Hook Elementary gets naught for 2011-12. Zero, as in $0! (How can you not do any maintenance at all on an elderly school? Unless, of course, it isn’t being used.) The other elementary schools are likewise shunned, except for Hawley, which collects a respectable $31,000. Not as good as Bad News, but something.

However, the “total” for 2011-2012 is only $96,500, delaying or deleting quite a bit of the maintenance pain that Bad News proposed ($815,500) for 2011-12.

But Big Dues also includes a five-year capital plan for all Newtown schools. See page 74 for the total cost for all Newtown schools: $3,237,500. 

That’s a significant jump from the $2.5 million estimate in Bad News.

Over five years, the 2011-12 building & maintenance breakdown for all schools in Newtown is given below. Cinderella has also included the costliest items in most cases, just for the sake of seeing. You never know – some of this info might be helpful down the road.

  • Sandy Hook: $369,500 — biggest item: $100k cafeteria roof
  • Hawley: $426,000 — biggest items: boiler and generator, ea. $150k
  • Middle Gate School: $576,000 — biggest item: $200k boiler
  • Head O’ Meadow: $145,000 — several $20k items, such as gym floor striping
  • Reed Intermediate: $194,500 —biggest item: $75k wall system on stage
  • Middle School: $575,500 —biggest item: $110k front parking lot paving
  • High School: $716,000 —biggest item: $380k parking lot paving
  • Buildings & Grounds (System-wide): $235,000 —biggest item: $150k phone system

Sad buildings. Pages 72-74 of Big Dues also tell us about the sorry state many of Newtown’s schools were in, especially Hawley, Sandy Hook and the Middle School.

Many of the items needing repair are “worn,” “badly worn,” “badly deteriorated,” “damaged/ADA,” “damaged beyond repair,” “inefficient,” “end of warranty,” “poor condition,” while others are health and security/safety issues and even described as  “past life expectancy.”

Sandy Hook’s biggest ticket item is its “cafeterium [sic] roof” – $100,000. There’s no mention of its heating and ventilation system, subjects of BOE discussions in 2002, when a $4.5 million repair was discussed, but, to Cinderella’s knowledge, never completed. (See the Fellowship of the Minds (FOTM) article here. Note that the links have been memory-holed since the article was written on Sept. 9, 2015. )

The same FOTM article points out that in 2004, the Newtown Board of Education was told that Sandy Hook Elementary’s roof had “serious problems.”  And in 2008, problems with asbestos in Newtown public schools were being discussed.

Yet, years later, in Big Dues, the focus has narrowed to Sandy Hook’s cafeteria roof, book shelves, some cabinets and doors, etc. No mention of many other things this photo album reveals in the all-too-familiar drab, faded Sandy Hook colors – hanging wires, a raddled parking lot, water damage, possible leaks, plywood patchwork, dismally worn and neglected finishes.

Consider: this is a public school not far from relatively new (2009) swanky town offices that are across the street from a luxurious sports complex.

Cinderella isn’t a town planner or an accountant or even a journalist. She’s just a house cleaner and ballroom dancer!  She knows that budgeting is often a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul affair.

But it seems very strange that a public school system in Connecticut’s richest county would keep its elementary school buildings in such frowzy fettle.

And then, just to add insult to injury, it releases budgetary figures that dart and zig-zag from one extreme to another like drunken bees. (And speaking of Bees, keep reading.)

Whoosh! But, of course, the money flow picked up immediately after the 12-14-12 event: Over $19 million through various sources. Click here for an itemized list, which doesn’t count the $50M from the state for the new Sandy Hook school, repeat lottery winnings or subsequent charity windfalls.

Speaking strictly economically, the 12-14-12 Sandy Hook event was one of the best things that ever happened to Newtown taxpayers – and tax collectors.

It sounds crass because it is. And Cinderella can find much stronger words for it.

Let’s put the budget issues aside for a moment and devote some attention to Reed Intermediate school, which has swallowed up quite a portion of the Newtown taxpayers’ dollars (and likely various insurance proceeds) over the years.

Reed: Two recipes for disaster. The most expensive trouble occurred between 2001 and 2008, but other kinds of trouble loomed over Reed well into 2012.

  1. Silt, mold and oil spill soup. The long, legal perils that arrived even before the $22,123,000 Reed Intermediate school opened in January 2003 are worthy of a tabloid. Newtown Bee did its best.  In 2002, the DEP arrived after Haynes Construction, the contractor with the lowest bid, allowed silt to pour into a neighboring waterway. Then, after the school opened, an air handling system failed and flooded an interior area with 1,000 gallons of water, causing a serious mold problem that resulted in itchy rashes. Then a 4,000-gal.  fuel oil leak befouled the neighboring brook and necessitated a $1.2M cleanup. You can read about the legal ramifications and settlement here. No wonder the Reed school, from an aerial perspective, resembles the eye of Horus. In its early days, it seems to have been a sad and sorry money hole.
  2. Denniston stew.  Donna Denniston was Reed’s principal for 6-7 years, from 2003-2009. She had the misfortune of being married to a white-collar criminal, Garrett Denniston, who operated a fraudulent investment scheme from 2005-2012. You can find the entire FBI report on Garrett L. Denniston’s financial shenanigans here. Even the Newtown Bee ran a story on the “Former Newtowner” here,*  (“Former Newtowner Pleads Guilty in Elaborate Fraud Scheme,” 2-22-2013)  in which his name is linked to Donna Denniston. Such associations could not have been good for Mrs. Denniston or for Reed School or, for that matter, Newtown.

*Since Cinderella began writing this post, Newtown Bee saw fit to take their article on the Denniston scandal down. Click on the link anyway, so you can witness the memory hole.

Two cents from the taxpayers. At first, Newtown’s 2011-12 budget didn’t pass the April referendum because only 21.5% of the residents voted, a stunning show of apathy or perhaps something even worse.

In fact, it was the worst voter turnout since 2002 – the same year that the $4.5 million repair to Sandy Hook was being discussed. The same year that the DEP was investigating the silt being dumped into the brook near Reed school by Haynes Construction.

Not to be defeated, two Newtown legislative council members conducted an informal survey to find out why, in 2011, voters were still staying home – and what they thought about the proposed budget.

You can find the taxpayers’ responses here. Some wanted more spent (particularly on schools); others wanted less; still others approved.

Of those who wanted less, it’s clear they were cracking under the weight of Newtown’s taxes during a very bad year for the housing market and the economy in general.  So many interesting comments. Here’s a particularly revealing one:

“Ms Robinson and the Mr. Hart have not solved one real problem but have hired consultants to do their jobs, been found responsible for a FOI violation, and have an accounting system that has been determined to be in violation of state law by our auditor. I have no faith in their plans.”

As said, you can find all of the taxpayers’ responses here.

Let’s imagine. To conclude this dreary ramble, let’s engage in one of Cinderella’s favorite pastimes: A purely hypothetical, possibly silly, ultimately funny, just-for-fun thought experiment. This is an exercise solely in imagination, what we dancers call “improvisation.” Ready? Here we go:

You’re a town with money woes in 2011. You have schools that need refurbishing and you don’t exactly have a sterling track record in your choice of building contractors. You’ve made people on both sides of the taxation issue mad at you. Quite apart from that, your reputation has been sullied by bad people being associated with other choices you have made. A while ago, you bought a big, scary-looking mental hospital from the state of Connecticut with karma-laden buildings that you can’t find buyers for. Except, of course, for local taxpayers, who helped pay for your new offices there. An altruistic entrepreneur built a sports complex there, too, which boosts the tax base, but it isn’t enough. You already have one high-security prison in town and, much as you like the $1 million+ annual offset on taxes, you don’t want another state pen. You have to do something fast or more tax slaves and businesses are going to pull up stakes and move out. Your birth rate is quickly approaching zero per year. So what’ll it be? How will you rally the cooks and salvage the porridge? Let’s see …

***

“What’s past is prologue.”-Antonio, II. i. 288 from The Tempest by William Shakespeare

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3 thoughts on “History: Bad news and big dues for Newtown.

  1. Outstanding research, Cinderella!

    The alleged massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School certainly was a financial windfall for everyone, from victim families (who got $millions in donations and their homes for $0), to the impoverished school system (esp. SHES that got a swanky state-of-the-art school to replace the old, dilapidated, asbestos-ridden ramshackle), and taxpaying residents. I’ve got to hand it to Newtown’s city government — the three Selectmen led by First Selectman Patricia Llodra — for their stroke of pure genius. By the way, all three Selectmen also got free homes! Who says crime doesn’t pay?

    http://fellowshipoftheminds.com/2014/02/13/the-strange-purchase-date-and-price-of-sandy-hook-homes/

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