EAST LYME — The Board of Education is considering a budget of slightly less than $52 million, with changes to class sizes, added educational coaching for students, spending on technology, and to town taxes in the upcoming fiscal year.
East Lyme residents will have an opportunity to comment on the superintendent of school’s 2020-21 budget recommendation at a 6 p.m. February 10 public forum at East Lyme High School.
The Board of Education can still alter the budget before it is approved and sent to the Board of Selectmen, but in its current form, as presented by Superintendent Jeffrey Newton, the $51,988,141 budget is 5.57 percent larger than East Lyme’s previous school budget for fiscal year 2019-20.
Funding for the town’s school system made up 66% percent, and was the largest single part, of East Lyme’s overall budget for fiscal year 2019-20.
Board of Education Chair Timothy Hagen said during Monday night’s school board meeting that the board was asking this year for services which have been deferred in previous budgets. Hagen said that fixed costs of salaries and benefits have not previously allowed the school system to add necessary new programs.
Budgets for East Lyme schools have settled on increases of between 2.38 and 3.30 percent over the previous 5 fiscal years.
“I would argue that this is the year for correction,” Hagen said. “Or maybe to make an adjustment, to fix some things that clearly need to be fixed.”
Superintendent Jeffrey Newton said that, for example, the district currently has only one behavioral analyst with a caseload of about 40 students, which he said “should be half of that at most.”
Hagen said that the board had reached a consensus that they should “just lay everything out” and ask for all the services that they believed they need, and then take feedback on the proposal.
At the school board’s January 13 meeting, Newton originally recommended a $51.3 million operating budget — a 4.26 percent increase over the current year. With the school board’s approval, he added budget items on Monday night that would together amount to an additional $641,045 of spending.
The added budget items include five additional elementary school teachers divided among the three schools, a district-wide board certified behavioral analyst, two full-time math coaches, an added social worker, a district-wide instructional technology manager, and an equivalent of 1.5 global language instructors. In addition the board proposed the purchase of computers for students, and an upgrade to Wi-Fi and other technology infrastructure. That plan would be paid for in $200,000 annual installments over 5 years.
According to Newton, a portion of these costs could be offset by savings recently identified on lease payments, and through staff reductions.
Added items considered
Newton and board member Eric Bauman said that the district may ultimately choose not to hire two of the five elementary school positions if the incoming kindergarten class does not require them, but last fall the board approved an additional kindergarten position and paraprofessionals, to accommodate a kindergarten class that was bigger than expected.
“It wasn’t fine, but it’s what happened,” Bauman said. “At the last minute, we had more students than we were expecting. They broke over the threshold.”
According to Newton’s presentation, each teaching position adds about $60,930 to the budget,
Newton said that larger than expected kindergarten enrollment led to class sizes of 20 or 21 students at Flanders Elementary School. Niantic Center School added a teacher to compensate, and other schools added additional paraprofessionals. The district’s recommended class size is about 15.
Newton said that because 2019-20 and 2020-21 kindergarten classes are larger than average, those cohorts of students will require additional teachers as they graduate through the school system.
“We gambled this year and really lost. I’m not really comfortable in gambling when it comes to kids and class sizes,” Newton said.
School board member Candice Carlson said that the school board adopted a standard class size to ensure equity between schools, and she said that the town should expect more students in the coming years as the town continues to develop.
“We have residential developments that are going on in each one of the school districts,” Carlson said. “We put that in place for a reason [when we redistricted] and that was to hopefully not end up with class sizes at 30.”
Newton’s proposal also calls for hiring two more specialized elementary math coaches at total cost of $121,860, which would allow for one full-time math coach in each elementary school. Newton’s proposal would offset these costs by cutting the positions of three paraprofessionals.
Newton said that school principals and teachers have been pushing for added math coaches for years. Currently, the district has one full-time math coach who splits her time between three elementary schools, Newton said.
The Monday night proposal also budgeted about $91,000 for one full-time and one half-time global language teacher to be split between the three elementary schools. Newton said that this cost could be offset by eliminating one middle school language teacher position and possibly reducing the number of recess aids.
Assistant Superintendent Amy Drowne said that high school foreign language teachers in the district have pushed the district to start exposing students to foreign languages at a young age.
Board member Bauman supported the proposal.
“We know that children learn language when they’re young and as they get older it gets harder and harder to learn another language,” Bauman said. “Introducing it at kindergarten makes total sense.”
Board member Jaime Barr Shelburn said that she was “wholeheartedly in favor of K to 4 global language education if we’re going to implement it correctly.” According to Barr Shelburn, previous attempts by the school board to introduce comprehensive language education have been unsuccessful and “a disservice” to students.
Finance chair tamps down expectations
Board of Finance Chair Camille Alberti attended Monday night’s meeting, and during public comment said that while she respected their advocacy for the needs of the district’s children, board members should have “realistic expectation” about what would be included in the final budget.
“The other side of the equation is how are we going to pay for these expenses?”
Alberti added that she did not think any additional tax revenue from Costco and development would be enough to offset reductions in state-level aid.
“I’m very pleased to see that you’ve prioritized some of these initiatives,” Alberti told the school board, “and I encourage you to think about — if we are facing a reduction in the proposed increase — each one of you should be thinking about what moves forward and what doesn’t.”
This story was updated to include additional information regarding district hiring last year to compensate for a larger than expected kindergarten class.