WALLINGFORD — The Board of Education is expected to approve a $102.9 million budget proposal later this month, a plan that would reduce 12 teaching positions despite a spending increase of $2.44 million, or 2.42 percent.
The school board’s operations committee, made up of all nine school board members, voted 8-1 to approve the budget at a meeting last week, and the Board of Education is expected to formally approve during its Feb. 26 meeting to send the plan to the mayor.
The proposed budget includes a 1.84 percent increase of the board’s sustained services budget, which are expenses needed to run the school district as is next year. The remaining increase comes from the board’s strategic plan budget, or new expenses for long-term goals. Those items total $581,458 and include $272,000 for hiring four social workers/school psychologists to address mental health needs at the elementary level and $60,000 for a facility survey for the district’s middle schools and high schools. The mental health professionals and facilities survey are ranked as the number one and number two priorities in the strategic plan budget respectively.
Board members said they believe the budget strikes a balance between moving the district forward and limiting costs in light of a tough fiscal climate.
“Clearly all of us live in town,” Republican board member Karen Hlavac said. “We’re all taxpayers, so we keep the taxpayer in mind when we’re looking at the budget, but we’re also charged with making sure we have an equitable distribution of resources in our school district.”
Democrat Tammy Raccio agreed. “I think the budget represents the fact that were trying to be conscious of the fiscal enviroment and the fact that we’re trying to move the district forward,” she said.
The biggest cost drivers in the school district’s sustained services budget include special education tuition costs, which increased over $800,000 from last year, and employee benefits, which increased over $400,000.
Republican Erin Corso was the only one opposed to the budget last week, saying she wasn’t comfortable approving the four social workers/school psychologists and facilities survey without “making additional revisions to the sustained services budget in order to make room” for the items. The proposal is down from the 3.48-percent increase Superintendent Salvatore Menzo presented the board last month.
Much of those reductions come from a projected reduction in the district’s insurance costs for next year, Menzo said. Other reductions included $581,458 worth of strategic plan items removed from Menzo’s initial proposal.
The budget proposal would reduce 12 teaching positions in the district based on declines in enrollment. Seven of those cuts will be “true layoffs,” happening in schools with class sizes below the board’s guidelines, while the others will results from teacher retirements and attrition, Menzo said.
“It’s bringing the class sizes in alignment with the rest of the district,” Raccio said. “It’s not a change in practice, it’s aligning those schools with the class sizes in the other elementary schools.”
For example, Parker Farms Elementary School and Moses Y. Beach Elementary School each have average class sizes of 17.4 students this school year, according to an analysis by the school district. That falls beneath other K-2 schools, who have around 20 students per class. Both schools will have three teaching position eliminated next year, which will bring their class sizes up to around 21 students.
Menzo said the board looks to keep class sizes at K-2 schools around 21 students, and around 23 students for grades 3 through 5.
Menzo said the district has been able to minimize layoffs in the past due to reitrements, allowing teachers in eliminated positions to shift to openings elsewhere, but “unfortunately that wasn’t the case this year.” Most of the staff reductions will occur at the elementary level, according to data provided by the school district.
Mary G. Fritz Elementary School will lost two teaching positions and Cook Hill, Pond Hill, and Rock Hill elementary schools will lose one position. There will be no reductions of certified teachers at the middle schools or high schools, according to information from the school district.
Lou Faiella, president of the teacher’s union, could not be reached to comment on the staff reductions Monday afternoon.
Diana Koons, a third-grade teacher at Parker Farms School, publically spoke out in opposition to the reductions at a recent school board meeting, telling the board that she was speaking on behalf of three colleagues she said are in “possible jeopardy of losing their positions.” Koons argued that maintaining lower class sizes benefits each student.
“On paper, especially when discussing the budget, a child in our classroom becomes an average class number,” Koons said. “Aside from being a number, these students are someone’s child. Each and every student deserves our best intention...Smaller classes do matter because they matter to a child.”
Menzo said the reductions currently in the budget are still pending any future enrollment changes. In past years, the board has hired teachers in August prior to the start of the school year in response to growing enrollment at different grade levels, Menzo said.
Hlavac said she’s comfortable with the staff reductions given the fiscal climate and because “we still are maintaining the class sizes that our board guidelines call for.”
“I am never comfortable when people lose their jobs, but when enrollment has decreased, a natural decrease in staff is the result,” Corso said. “This also served to balance class sizes across the district and ensure equity among all of our class sizes.”