EAST LYME — Superintendent Jeffrey Newton proposed a $51.3 million operating budget for fiscal year 2020-21 to the Board of Education on Monday night, which would be a 4.26 percent increase over East Lyme Public Schools’ budget for 2019-20.
Newton also proposed that the school board request $926,500 to be included in the town’s capital planning to purchase technology for the schools, explaining that an emphasis on technology is critical for preparing students for college and careers in a digital economy.
“The story of this year’s budget is a lot around technology,” he told the school board, “and making sure that we are finalizing our infrastructure so that we can move forward with all the programs around our schools that are software-driven and using mobile learning devices.”
Newton also said that over 94 percent of the budget is fixed costs, including salaries, benefits, contracted services, transportation, tuition for East Lyme students who go out of district, and insurance.
Employee salaries and benefits together make up 77 percent of the budget as Newton presented it.
After Newton’s presentation, the Board of Education next will discuss his proposal and make revisions as they see fit before voting to recommend their own budget. The next budget workshop is planned for Tuesday, January 21.
East Lyme’s schools budget represents the largest part of the town’s spending. In fiscal year 2019-20, the Board of Education’s budget added up to 66 percent of the town’s total budget approved by voters at referendum, or $49.24 million for schools out of a total budget of $74.18 million.
The school budget was a point of controversy last year when the Board of Finance initially cut $500,000 from the school board’s request, and then the returned $250,000 after a lengthy public hearing in April 2019 when Newton, school board members, parents, and others defended the school spending.
In late 2019, the school board held early budget workshops in November and December.
“We’re proud of these budget workshops to really open up conversation and dialogue,” Newton said.
Assistant Superintendent Amy Drowne presented on technology requests in the budget proposal and said that the school system was trying to prepare children for a working world in which most of the jobs they’ll be competing for don’t even yet exist in 2020.
The schools, she said, are providing “powerful learning devices and making sure that we’re putting them into the hands of our staff and students, that they assist with communication and collaboration and don’t become another barrier.”
She said that this means ensuring students have access to high-speed internet in and out of school and that the technology is being used in a way that it supports lesson plans.
Currently, 57 percent of the district’s computers and tablets are six years old or older, according to Newton’s presentation.
Drowne said that the district is working to make the technology used in classrooms consistent across all grades so that teachers moving from one grade to another don’t need to learn all new programs as a result.
Added staff in 2019-20
Newton said that the district had found itself to be understaffed to meet student needs during the school year 2019-20, give a large kindergarten class, added students with special education needs, and last year’s elementary redistricting. As a result, the district hired additional staff with the approval of the Board of Education in the first weeks of the academic year.
Newton said that hiring one additional kindergarten teacher, a half-time special education teacher, 10 part-time teaching assistants, and one instructional technician added $313,600 to fiscal year 2019-20 and $318,600 to fiscal year 2020-21.
Newton said some of these costs have been covered by windfalls elsewhere in the budget.
“We’ve had a lot of savings in natural gas this year to cover that cost, and we haven’t had to freeze the budget yet, but we’re not fully there yet,” Newton said. “We’re working on it, and we’re getting close to covering that for next year.”
Newton’s presentation also noted several potential staff positions that he hadn’t included in his 2019-20 budget presentation, but that the board could decide to add: two kindergarten teachers, a elementary school teacher, a social worker, a behavior analyst, the equivalent of one and a half global language teachers for elementary school, an instructional technology manager, and two math coaches.
Newton and the school board agreed to discuss these at their next budget workshop.
During the period for public comment prior to the presentation, school parent Amy Rogers asked the school board to keep class sizes in mind as they made their decisions on the budget.
“I currently have kindergartener and a second grader,” Rogers said, “and I’m finding that my son’s kindergarten experience is very different than what my daughter had. It’s a larger class in a smaller classroom and he’s just not loving kindergarten like my daughter did.”
She said that the larger class size seemed to place extra stress on students and to make teachers’ work more difficult.
“It’s harder to quantify, but nonetheless extremely important.”
Newton responded during the presentation, “It’s a top priority across the district that we ensure our class sizes are what they need to be to ensure that we are educating our students.”
Board member Candice Carlson asked Newton to post his presentation to the schools’ website to allow for community participation.