In February, the New Milford Board of Education voted to move their board elections to November, effectively ending the annual public vote on their base budget.
These changes arise out of a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie in January that overhauls a century-old system on how communities vote for school board members and budgets.
Under the law, districts that opt to move school board elections to the general election date in November must stay within the state's 2 percent cap on property tax increases and, in doing so, they do not need to hold budget votes. If the budget exceeds the cap, only the specific spending above the cap would be put to a public vote.
Still, Superintendent Michael Polizzi, along with his administrative team Michael Sawicz, Business Administrator; and Danielle Shanely, Director of Curriculum and Instruction; want to inform taxpayers on the budget and the short-term and long-term goals of the district.
Polizzi said that within the confines of the 2 percent cap, the Board of Education is ensuring that the district maintains the current level of programming as well as the growth of the academies.
"We are extremely sensitive to the community and what taxpayers can afford," Polizzi said.
A little over two years ago, Polizzi inherited a fractured school district emerging from a decade of administrative instability —five superintendents in ten years. His first mission was to set forth progressive goals that would change the face of education to reflect the real world that these students will be entering upon graduation.
"For the first time there is stable leadership that has the support of the Board of Education to move a cohesive improvement agenda forward," Polizzi said.
The primary goals of the district are as follows:
Focus on technology: Computers are the 21st century's primary learning devices and Polizzi is committed to increasing the ratio of computers to student.
"If you're going to talk about 21st Century learning environments, then you have to put your money where your mouth is," Polizzi said.
Polizzi said that as a result of the recent acquisition of 210 new computers, the total is 857 computers for the entire district K-12. The 210 new laptops have been placed in the elementary schools and the middle school. Two laptop carts of 30 computers each have been designated, and are being used for each of the elementary schools. A laptop cart of 30 computers has been designated for each grade level at DEO Middle School.
Investing in teachers: Polizzi said that it is vitally important that the teaching staff be provided with the tools that can help them do their job. "The district is committed to providing professional development for the teachers," he said. Because despite all of the technology that is available in the classroom, the teacher is still the centrifugal learning force in the classroom, he said.
"Through grant funding and local funding we will have almost doubled our professional development budget from $63,000 last year to $139,000 this year."
Professional development includes Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) and core learning workshops. PLC's consist of groups of educators committed to working collaboratively to research a subject and develop a class or program targeted towards both the students and the teachers area of interest.
The underlying assumption of PLC's is that continuous "embedded" learning for teachers is the key to improved learning for students. Polizzi says that PLC's are a way to respect the voices of "our experts, the teachers."
Grant money for professional development is available through Title II of the Higher Education Act—Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High Quality Teachers and Principals.
In addition to grants, Polizzi said the district is also looking into partnerships with universities.
"We have also provided the district with wifi, allowing the teachers to utilize their own technology within the district," he added.
A little over two years ago, Polizzi came to New Milford and inherited a school district with little focus towards the future.
"Among other things, there was no grant writing process," Polizzi told Patch.
Currently, the district is focusing on, and has applied for, grants for physical fitness and nutrition.
Additionally, the district has applied for the National Science Foundation grant. This grant is an inquiry based science grant that partners the New Milford School district with a school district in New Mexico. The grant is designed to cultivate teacher leaders.
The district has also applied for the Kessler Institute grant for stand alone greenhouses and gardens that would create outdoor science centers. These centers would serve to introduce students to the world of inquiry-based science.
Polizzi said that he and his team are also focusing on renovating the high school library to turn it into a 21st century center that will serve as the intellectual hub of the school.
The difference a year makes: Polizzi said that the New Milford school district looks very different today than it did one year ago.
"Last year we received $280,000 in restored state aid and we had seven retirements. This allowed for 28 new hires without any increase to payroll," hew said.
"We also established the Inner Bridge Crossing (IBC) Program, an in-district program servicing children with autism and developmental delays."
"Prior to establishing the IBC program, the district was spending approximately $55,000 per child per year to send them to a specialized school out-of-district," Polizzi said. By establishing an in-district specialized school for children with autism and developmental delays, the district is not only realizing a permanent cost savings, but now other school districts are paying tuition to have their children schooled at IBC.
The district also received a one-time payment this year of $160,000 in extraordinary aid based on the number of special needs children in the district. This is money that was put right back into the district.
Global Leadership Room: The centerpiece of the high school is room 336, also known as the Global Leadership room.
Equipped with 29 state-of-the-art computers, modular work and study tables, ergonomic chairs, a smart board with dual screen capacity and a computerized world map clock that is normally found in the higher offices of government and scientific labs, this room is as far away as you can get from the traditional white-walled classroom that once uniformly defined the learning environment.
Polizzi said, "[When people see that room,] the question becomes 'Where did you get the money from?'"
Polizzi explained that all of the labor was done in-house by the maintenance staff, staff electrician, technology workers and volunteers. The entire school needs new windows, but the Global Leadership room was the starting point. "Since we were renovating the room, it made sense to start the window replacement with this room," Polizzi said.
The cost of replacing those windows was $109,000 because they are "window walls" and cover not only that floor, but the floor below it that includes other adjacent offices and two bathrooms.
"The two biggest expenses in Room 336 were furniture and computers," Polizzi said. "There was money in the budget to do this based on the extraordinary aid the district received."
Polizzi said that one of the district's goals is to have more rooms like the Global Leadership room.
One tenth grader told Polizzi, "We need more rooms like 336 because when we graduate and go out into the world, we need to be in the game."
The Master Plan: One of the first priorities Polizzi had upon arriving in New Milford was to create a master plan for reinvesting in the infrastructure. For too long, the infrastructure had been neglected and repairs made only as emergencies arose.
Upon taking the helm as Superintendent, Polizzi said, "We immediately identified the roof on the high school as needing to be replaced."
A new roof is going on the pitched areas with a product that is not only "green," but has a 75-year warranty with a life expectancy of 125 years.
"The cost is not much more than the cost of an asphalt roof," he said, adding that the money for this is coming from the capital reserve and not the operating budget.
Going Forward: It is the commitment of Polizzi and his staff to create a learning environment that reflects the ever-changing world that the students will be graduating into.
Polizzi said it is the goal of his team, along with the board, to design an effective learning experience that will take students into the global forum of the 21st Century. "We're constantly looking at ways to creatively accomplish this at little to no cost to the taxpayers."