BOE approves administration’s budget

The Board of Education unanimously approved school administrators’ 2018-19 proposed budget, which features a 1.84% hike from last year.

Approval came after Superintendent of Schools John Battista’s quick overview of the $56,281,117 proposed budget — an increase of $1,016,220 from the 2017-18 adopted budget — and only a handful of questions from board members, who received the plan in early December.

“We really feel like we have a solid budget,” said Battista. “If there are places there need to be cuts, you know exactly where they need to come from because everything is right out there.”

Battista said that keeping the percent increase low is becoming more difficult because enrollment has remained stable, unlike in recent years when the administration was able to budget with declining student numbers.

The proposed budget factors in receiving $5,662,469 from the state’s Education Cost Sharing grant and another $825,571 in additional state grants and $968,586 in SPED Excess Cost money. These numbers were approved in the recently signed two-year state budget, but school officials have questioned if the town will end up receiving all that has been promised.

Some 80% of the school budget is salaries and benefits, so Battista said it comes as no surprise that the two largest budget jumps come in salaries ($35,523,163, a 2.45% jump) and benefits ($9,733,676, a 4.11% hike). The administration was able to anticipate significant reductions in special education instruction, with a 10.10% drop from last year, and transportation, a 2.35% drop from last year. There will also be an anticipated $45,061 cut in the Honeywell lease payment. Battista said the reductions in special education and transportation result from more children in the program returning to the district for services.

The proposed budget includes eliminating 3.5 full-time staffers and 1.5 non-certified staffers, all due to a decline in enrollment; a $400,000 increase in the school district’s medical and dental insurance budget; adding a one-ton plow truck ($55,000) in the operating budget; and reinstating two of the three K-5 coordinators as well as three elementary technology paraeducators.

“We’re happy because we are able to use the savings to put things we wanted back in the budget,” said Battista.

Among the risks to meeting the proposed 2018-19 budget numbers, according to administrators, are unanticipated special education costs, unfunded mandates from the state, unanticipated maintenance costs, and medical and prescription costs, which can fluctuate greatly over the course of a year.

Board Chair Donna Lane said the health insurance and special education busing numbers could fluctuate, but she expects more precise figures by February when the school budget goes before the Board of Finance.

“The numbers could change slightly,” said Lane.

But the major uncertainty is state grant money. Among the cuts school officials made because of the governor’s cuts to the 2017-18 budget — which were not reinstated in this past fiscal year — were dropping one central office administrator, three K-5 subject area coordinators, two nurses, one high school teacher, and curriculum writing courses.

“There is not a lot of wiggle room with this budget, except people,” said Battista, adding that more than 80% of the proposed budget number is salary and benefits, which is already set in stone, and transportation, where one bus has already been cut. “We always try to keep any cuts as far away from the students as we can.”

Lane said the boards of finance and education have a “great relationship,” and any possible reductions in the future would always be done with the best interests of the students in mind.

In all, Battista said, the proposed budget includes some $300,000 for reinstating several items removed as part of the $1-million reduction in the 2017-18 fiscal year budget.

Battista said that two of the three K-5 coordinators would be reinstated, with the third spot being taken by a current teacher who will add this responsibility to her role.

“These coordinators helped with continuity,” said Battista, adding that the individuals remain schooled in the latest state education standards and make sure teachers are properly trained.

“This is so important to the board,” added Lane about reinstating the K-5 coordinators.

The proposed budget also brings back three elementary technology paraeducators, lost in last fiscal year’s reduction. These individuals aid in making sure teachers and students are best utilizing technology in the education process, said Battista.

Also reinstated in the proposed budget are the district’s teacher training initiatives, focusing on the Columbia Writing Project, inquiry learning, Connecticut Core Standards, and Next Generation science standards — all done during the summer months, said Battista, so teachers remain on top of the latest educational advances before the opening of the next school year.

The administration also included $20,000 for a social worker, said Battista, because educators feel that with many of the challenges facing today’s youth, this type of service is needed.

“We believe that this needs to be available to the students,” said the interim superintendent. “But we know we have to be fiscally conservative, so we put in the minimum to meet this need.”

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