EAST LYME — The Board of Education approved a fiscal year 2020-21 budget of $51,699,974 — a 4.98 percent increase over 2019-20 — after a Monday night public forum where residents aired their thoughts on class sizes, technology in classrooms, costs to taxpayers, and special education support.
Board of Education members acknowledged that the increase was larger than in recent years, but said that this was a “catch-up” budget to address needs that had been put off in previous years.
“We have to make up for everything that we’ve been cutting all these years,” said school board member Jaime Barr Shelburn. “We have to do right by our kids and we have to do right by our parents and by the town and everybody else who’s paying to educate these kids. We have to make sure they’re actually getting educated to the best that we can, and I think that this budget is hopefully making those steps in the right direction.”
The eight board members present for the 9 p.m. vote on the budget were unanimous in supporting it.
“We’ve deferred a lot of this,” school board member Eric Bauman said. “I don’t want anyone to think that our new growth rate is 5 percent per year. That is not the new growth rate. It’s that we need to [get done] things that really probably should have been [accomplished] over the past few years.”
Most residents who spoke at the forum were generally supportive of the budget increase.
Sarah Susco, who described herself as a mother of twins in two different kindergarten classes at Lillie B. Haynes School, said that their large class sizes of 22 and 21 made it harder for teachers to control the classroom and give attention to each student. One of her sons, who has special needs, has particularly “struggled” in that environment, she said.
“I have tried to work with the school to get him extra help, and we’ve gotten a little bit,” Susco said. “I would like to say that I fully support the full budget, and I additionally support making the classes smaller and adding more support.”
Isabel Georgian, a parent and a teacher at Flanders Elementary School, said similarly that maintaining small class sizes is important for many school goals because it determines how much time and attention teachers are able to give their students.
“To get those math scores, to get those reading scores, you have to look at what we are able to do with students in a certain amount of time,” Georgian said. “Class size I think is really where all of those needs that we are hearing from everyone I think can truly be met, but there is a financial cost to that.”
Over a dozen residents spoke at the forum after a presentation by Superintendent Jeffrey Newton. The meeting room at East Lyme High School had about 30 people in the audience, filling the chairs and with several people standing.
Earlier this month, Newton presented a budget proposal with a 5.57 percent increase, but he said Monday that he had since learned that an increase on employees’ health insurance will be significantly lower than previously expected, saving the district roughly $288,000.
The budget as passed Monday night would add five elementary teachers at a cost of $304,000 to maintain smaller class sizes. Newton said that number may be reduced if student enrollment is lower than expected.
The budget also added two elementary school math coaches for a total of $121,860, a social worker ($60,930), the equivalent of 1.5 global language teachers ($91,396), a behavior analyst ($70,000), and district wide manager for technology services ($70,000), according to Newton’s presentation.
The district would spend about a million dollars in a financing plan to purchase computers and technology for students, improve internet access across the district, and add technology into lessons. This would be paid for over the next five years with annual costs of $200,000.
These added expenses will be somewhat offset by cutting two middle school teacher positions, three paraprofessionals, and potentially lunch and recess aids positions.
In his presentation at the meeting, Newton also stated that the education budget increase over the last eight years, ranging from 1.78 percent in 2012-2013 up to 3.30 percent in 2016-17, would average out to a yearly increase of 2.48 percent.
“Those, in terms of needs across the school district that has almost 535 employees, are minimal increases,” Newton said in his presentation at the public forum. “We’ve worked very hard, especially in my five years [as superintendent], in presenting bare bones budgets that get us by but are not necessarily moving us forward.”
Residents at forum mostly support the budget
The first resident to speak at the forum, Mike Schulz, was the most critical of the budget increase.
“Some towns are taking away services from all the people, the entire community, to be able to pay for these education costs… I’m asking for a [town and school employee] wage and salary freeze for fiscal year 2020-2021,” Schulz said. “I’m not asking you to give up the things that you want for the school, but I’m asking you to give up the increases for the wage and salary increases, which are probably deserved, but very significant.”
Many of the new programs he said he could support as “common sense,” but he said that the town appears to be taking on high new costs for public safety in the coming year, which he said was at least as important as education at this time.
Resident Kyle Douton said that he agreed with “almost everything” in the budget and would support increasing access to the internet in schools, but was skeptical of relying too much on advanced technology in preparing students for the workforce.
“As an employer, the students that we’re producing at the high school level, I would argue, are not ready for the workforce… I feel that a lot of kids need more life skills. They don’t know how to balance a budget. They don’t know what QuickBooks is. They don’t know what Adobe Suite is. They know what Instagram is.”
Crystal Maclean, who came to the forum with her eighth-grade son, said that it was essential for children to gain technological skills in the classroom to prepare for a changing world.
She said she had moved to East Lyme from a school district in Palm Beach County in Florida, where “in fifth grade and sixth grade my son was coding. We came here and he’s got nothing to continue that with. For the people who are questioning the need for technology advancement in the school, there are students all over this country that are having these opportunities. This is the way that the world is going.”
Children learn technology quickly just like they do with new languages, she added. “They pick it up really quickly when they have the opportunity to learn really young.”
According to a timeline provided as part of Newton’s presentation, the board will present its budget on March 4 to the Board of Selectmen, and on April 2 to the Board of Finance, who could potentially reduce the budget before it goes to referendum. The school budget and town budget are together scheduled for a town wide vote on May 21.