EAST LYME — In two separate back-to-back meetings by teleconference Monday night, the Board of Education and Board of Selectman refined plans for reducing 2020-21 fiscal year budget requests in response to the economic downturn and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.
Both boards had drafted budgets before Governor Ned Lamont declared a state of emergency across the state of Connecticut on March 10. Since then First Selectman Mark Nickerson and other local elected leaders have said that they would seek to reduce the burden on taxpayers of a budget originally recommended to the Board of Finance at $77.63 million.
“This will be a tough year, but we’ll get through it,” Nickerson said in a phone interview after Monday’s meetings.
The Board of Selectmen recommended $312,544 in cuts to the Board of Finance from the selectmen’s original general government budget request of $19.2 million.
The Board of Education made plans to meet again this Thursday to give Superintendent Jeffrey Newton’s administration more time to refine some plans for potential reductions — initially presented as $860,199 — that the school board is considering to their original budget request of $51.7 million.
School board Chair Timothy Hagen said that Newton would send a letter to district parents explaining the budget situation before Thursday’s meeting and that the public would be able to submit comments or questions by email before the meeting.
Selectmen reduce number of added police officers, delay hiring for public works
The biggest items that making up the $312,500 that the selectmen recommended for cuts were $75,000 that town government estimates to save from changes to how it conducts its 10-year revaluation of all properties on East Lyme’s grand list, about $66,000 to remove one of the two added police officers requested by the town’s police commission, and about $34,000 from delaying the hiring of a new worker in the highway department until March of 2021. Nickerson originally presented these items at the board’s April 21 meeting.
Most the cuts were for smaller amounts: $15,000 for speed bumps, $6,000 saved for postage, about $6,000 reduced from the first selectman’s salary, $5,600 in reduction of hours for building department clerical staff. The selectmen recommended cutting about $3,200 for the 2020-21 budget’s Memorial Day parade because 2019-20’s parade was canceled and the funds could be transferred to next year.
“We’re not increasing some hours in different departments. We’ll hold off another year,” Nickerson said. He added that “this is not the year for growth.”
The selectmen’s vote on the suggested recommendations was unanimous.
Superintendent: cuts could increase class size
At the Board of Education’s meeting on Zoom, Superintendent Jeffrey Newton presented a tentative plan to reduce the school board’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget — passed originally at $51.7 million — by $860,199. However, Newton noted Monday night that his staff was still researching aspects of the plan and he said he would take notes from the school board into consideration before Thursday.
Out of that $860,199, about $304,650 in savings would come from reducing the school board’s original request for more elementary school teachers to reduce class sizes.
“Those class sizes are going to be out of the bounds that we have right now,” Newton said.
Some of the other potential reductions Newton presented were $121,860 for math coaches, $60,930 for an additional social worker, reduced coverage by $30,465 for a global language teacher, $64,120 for 4 part-time paras, and about $33,300 for delaying hiring additional custodians until January 2021.
Assistant Superintendent Amy Drowne presented a major reduction to a five-year technology plan that she and Newton had presented. The ultimate impact is that the school district will finance the plan by paying $100,000 each year for the next five years instead of paying $200,000 each year for the next five years. For fiscal year 2020-21, that’s $100,000 out of the total $860,199 that Newton presented.
The administration’s funding plans would still cover a 2-in-1, laptop-and-tablet device for all high school students phased in over 2019-20 and 2020-21, as well as upgrades to the school’s infrastructure to allow wireless internet all over the school. But the plan would cut out upgrades to teacher devices, office staff devices, interactive classroom boards, and some other installations.
Drowne said that classroom closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic emphasize the importance of students having technology that they can bring home to continue their lessons, especially if there are further disruptions to the 2020-21 school year calendar.
“The reality of our students and families has changed, and we can’t ignore that…. Our hope is that should we do this [learning from home] again, we’re really just going to keep instruction going and we’re going to try to keep it as consistent as we can to that classroom environment,” Drowne said.
Newton said that he would be hoping to reduce some of the effects of cuts with any savings realized in this year’s budget. He said that his administration had come to a favorable agreement with its bus company that will help the district’s finances.
The school board will next meet on Thursday. The Board of Finance will meet in early May to hear presentations from both the selectmen and the school board.