GUILFORD — School Superintendent Paul Freeman is requesting a nearly six percent increase for next year’s budget, a rise which he said was driven mainly by a spike in the cost of staff medical benefits.
The increase of six percent, or $3.6 million, would bring the district’s total budget to $66,076,234.
Freeman said in a board meeting on Monday that the cost of medical benefits are increasing from $8.5 million in 2021-22 to $10 million in 2022-23. This alone, he said, would constitute a 2.4 percent increase to the budget.
Freeman told CT Examiner he believed the increase was in response to several years of “relatively low claims.” He said he did not think the increase was the result of COVID-related expenses, although it may be related to some procedures that were put off because of the virus.
Other costs include contractual salary increases and a rise in the cost of transportation, fuel, insurance against cyber attacks and school lunch debt, all of which add up to about $1.3 million.
The budget also included an increase of $74,000 in legal costs. Freeman said on Monday that the district had doubled or tripled the number of Freedom of Information requests it had received in the last year, which is partially responsible for the increase.
Freeman also included $625,000 in new requests, including an assistant principal who would be shared between the elementary schools, a special education teacher and a classroom teacher at Alfred Cox Elementary.
Jason Sconziano, director of pupil services in Guilford, said in a board meeting on Thursday that the number of students in special education has risen from around 390 to 419, which he said was connected to parents being concerned about the effects of learning loss.
The budget also includes $100,000 to pay for an instructional coach to provide support for K-8 science teachers and would extend support for math teachers through 9th grade.
Board member Kristy Faulkner questioned how the instructional coach would directly help students and teachers as they tried to make up for the learning loss from the pandemic.
“I keep asking myself, how are we helping the teachers and how are we helping the students?” she said.
But board Chair Kathleen Balestracci said that she had consistently heard positive feedback about the role of the instructional coaches.
“Coaching has to be one of the things that I have heard consistently from administrators and from teachers has been a really positive investment,” said Balestracci.
Freeman also said he wanted to move one of the social workers whose salary had earlier been paid with federal coronavirus relief funds to the district budget, which would cost an additional $65,000. He said that this would help soften the “funding cliff” that would happen once the federal funds expire next year, allowing the district to keep the social worker employed in Guilford.
The district is currently paying for two other positions through federal coronavirus funds.
Freeman also requested $125,000 to pay for instructors to teach a half-credit course in junior and senior year of high school. The course takes the form of a workshop that will help guide students through a “mastery” project that each senior has to complete for graduation.
A number of the Board of Education members asked in a Thursday meeting whether it would be possible to have the students complete the requirement in another way, such as through one-on-one guidance outside of class time. Freeman said he feared doing that would place extra pressure on overachieving students to take on a full class load plus the mastery project. Julia Chaffe, principal of the high school, said that it was easier for students to let the project fall by the wayside if it were not part of a class.
“It’s very easy to procrastinate this if it’s an add-on thing that you need to get done,” said Chaffe.
The budget also includes $3,500 for an additional swim team coach and $12,500 toward paying for the cost of renting a hockey rink and swimming pool for practices. Freeman said this was to help relieve some of the pressures on parents to pay for the practice time themselves.
Freeman said he had been unsure whether to make any additional requests this year besides the bare necessities, but that he felt they were important to bring forward.
“I thought long and hard about whether or not these items should be in a budget that comes in as high as 5.9 percent,” said Freeman. “In my thinking, these are some of the most important items that we are going to be discussing over the next several weeks.”
The board will hold public hearings on the budget on January 24 and 25.