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Saturday, March 24 News

Residents come out in support of Outback, school budget

Eleven residents took to the podium at a Board of Finance public hearing Tuesday night to defend the proposed New Canaan Public Schools budget and to rally support for the Outback Teen Center.

Of the speakers, two were teenagers and two were 11 years old.

"The Outback has taught me a lot about leadership, friendship and many other things," sixth-grader Diego Ferreira told the board.

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The Human Services Department has proposed cutting its annual contribution to the Outback by 12.5 percent. If the budget is approved as is, the Outback would receive $17,500 from the town for 2014-15. Last year, it received $20,000, and the year before that it received $28,000.

The amount Human Services is proposing to give the Outback represents less than one-tenth of the teen center's $250,000 annual budget, according to Outback's Community Director Christine Simmons. The rest of the funding is raised through private donations.

New Canaan High School senior Henry Greer, president of Outback's Student Governing Board, said the center offers a safe environment for teens to get together and learn professional skills.

"In a small town like New Canaan, where sometimes there can be little to do if you're a teenager, the Outback provides a cool atmosphere and a real variety of events," Greer told the board. "Furthermore, for those of us that serve on the governing board, we have the opportunity to learn valid life lessons. We learn how to sharpen our communication skills, and to develop our ability to solve problems. We also challenge ourselves to think creatively about marketing and advertising our events to assure they're appealing to students."

The $17,500 still must be approved by the Board of Finance and Town Council, though the latter does not have the power to increase any budgets. The Board of Finance will vote on a recommended budget on Tuesday, March 11.

Though the 2014-15 budget still is a work in progress, last week the Board of Finance was looking at a total municipal budget, including all debt services, capital projects and schools budget, of $144,564,820. The amount is almost $2.4 million less than what the Board of Selectmen recommended in February and $12.5 million more than the 2013-14 budget.

Budget Director Jennifer Charneski noted that the board still is making changes and that the Finance Department has shifted money around so that some of the expenditures would not come from the tax levy. Other sources of funding the department found for capital projects include contributions from the town's fund balance, bonding, capital improvement program dollars and reimbursements received from the capital non-recurring fund.

Several other residents were concerned about the school budget. Stephanie Kirschner, a mother of three children who have attended or are enrolled in the New Canaan schools, asked that the board not reduce the schools' requested technology budget.

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"Unfortunately, the technology infrastructure that exists at both Saxe and the high school today isn't sufficient," she said. "I hear my kids grumbling that they spent 15 minutes of their scant 48-minute periods waiting for Internet access."

The schools are requesting $464,493 in the capital budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year so they can upgrade the wireless networks at both the middle and high schools. School officials have said the strength of the wireless network currently in place is insufficient to pass through every classroom wall, so depending on where students are sitting, they might find a very slow Internet connection or no connection at all.

"Getting the information should be the hard part, not getting to the information," Kirschner said.

The project calls for one wireless access point per two or three classrooms.

Residents also urged the board to fund the auditorium upgrade at Saxe Middle School.

Only one person came out to support a project that's not in the budget. Michael Nowacki, an outspoken resident who has filed many lawsuits against town officials over the years, asked the Board of Finance to fund an annual audit on the operations of the school district. Nowacki accused the school administration and Board of Education of not repaying more than $1 million in income acquired for the rental of school properties.

"There's a fiduciary responsibility that exists here of an elected public official to not just hit the information that's being given to you and trust that it's true," Nowacki said. "I can tell you with great certainty that you will find substantial overstatements and a lack of disclosures in the public meetings of the Board of Education of the funding of various salaries and increases that were not part of the discussion of what was presented."

In defense of the schools and the Outback, resident Cobie Graber asked the Board of Finance to slow down on its cuts.

"I think we're really getting to a dangerous point where we're cutting things now that are affecting the quality of life for students and for families in town," she said. "I understand the effort to cut and to cut some more and to cut some more, but at some point, the deferred maintenance at our schools is going to hurt our students and our families."

Graber also brought up the challenges the Outback has faced in the past few months. In October, for instance, the teen center had a high school dance party for 200 teens, where one youth was sent to the hospital and five others sent home for alcohol consumption.

Last month, former youth program director Andrew Barer was arrested on a charge of breach of peace after police said he made inappropriate comments to a group of students at Saxe Middle School in January.

Graber said she thinks the Outback doesn't deserve a budget cut on top of the problems it's going through.

"I think the problems plaguing the Outback are not necessarily issues with the Outback, but issues that are plaguing our youth," she said. "It concerns me that we're really not taking these issues seriously enough and putting more resources in place to help our troubled youth. It's not just New Canaan, it's everywhere.

"Certainly there have been some missteps along the way with the Outback, but I don't think we give up on an investment of that caliber," Graber said. "I think we double down and figure out a better way to support our youth."

Board of Finance Chairman and First Selectman Robert Mallozzi asked the board to consider reverting to last year's funding, when the Outback received $20,000.

"I think we should have that conversation," he said.

Board member Judy Neville agreed. She said that "if it's a question of survival," the board should give the Outback another $2,500. "I don't think that's a huge amount," she said.


203-330-6582; @olivnelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter