CLINTON — Despite declining enrollment numbers in the district, Superintendent Maryann O’Donnell said that this was not the year to reduce staffing.
In a meeting of the Finance and Facilities Committee on January 18, O’Donnell said that despite expecting a decrease of 57 students next year, the majority from the middle school enrollment, she did not want to reduce the number of teachers at Eliot, which would increase in average class sizes from 18 to 22 students per class.
O’Donnell said that the pandemic was still preventing teachers from running their classrooms the way that they would normally. She also said that before reducing the staff and restructuring classes, she wanted to speak with the staff and discuss the transition more in depth.
“We want our staff engaged in this, and we haven’t been able to do that,” said O’Donnell. “We are asking that additional year to restructure our high school and middle school schedule, so that we do it once and we do it right.”
O’Donnell also said that the current level of staffing had made it possible for the Clinton schools to remain open for part of the 2020-21 school year.
The district currently employs 182 teachers, a decline from 191 five years ago, during which time the district also closed the Pierson School. The number of paraprofessional positions has decreased by two full-time positions in that same time. In 2019, the district closed Pierson School, which housed fourth and fifth grade.
Assistant Superintendent Marco Famiglietti said that while enrollment overall was declining, the number of students who speak a language other than English, who have special needs or are eligible for free and reduced lunch has grown in the district.
O’Donnell said she also wanted to keep class sizes in the elementary level small, given that elementary children need to be able to read by the time they are in third grade. She pointed out that because of the pandemic, the current kindergarteners and first graders had not had “consistent, quality” experiences in pre-k classes.
Famiglietti explained that it had only just become possible again to have students sit together in small groups and work on their reading skills, thanks to social distancing required during the pandemic.
Class sizes in Clinton schools next year are projected at 14 for kindergarten, 17 for grades 1, 2 and 3, and 21 for grade 4.
“I would fight really hard to keep those numbers low,” said O’Donnell.
At a Board of Education meeting on January 24, O’Donnell presented the results of a “thought exchange” survey that went out to parents and staff in June. She said that the results showed that many parents and staff named small class sizes as one of the things they most valued about the district.
A “tight” budget
On January 24, O’Donnell presented a total budget proposal of $38 million, a 2.32 percent increase from last year.
Just over 40 percent of the increase, or $368,000 comes from salary increases outlined in the district’s bargaining agreement with the teacher, paraeducator and staffing unions.
An additional $465,250 will go toward building improvements and maintenance, including refurbishing the gym floors at Joel and Eliot, repairing the tennis courts at Morgan High School and upgrading the district’s electrical system, maintenance equipment and computers.
Other costs include purchasing supplies for a new elementary phonics program, the costs associated with the new bilingual program and the cost of materials for the new Health curriculum, African American and Latino studies course and Early Literacy curriculum, all required by the State of Connecticut. The district is also working on expanding the reading materials for English and social studies classes to reflect more diverse perspectives.
Special education also contributed to the cost increase, in the form of two additional students who need services outside of the district. Kimberly Pearce, director of special services, told the finance committee that she was seeing increased anxiety and depression in students, as well as a higher number of referrals to special education compared to last year.
“Some of our kids are just learning how to be students again,” said Pearce.
An additional $10,000 is budgeted for hiring a company to provide audio and sound and a live-stream of the graduation ceremony. O’Donnell said at a finance committee meeting that last year, the school had moved the graduation ceremony to a different field to allow for more social distancing, which she said was a better environment but required more audio technology. O’Donnell also said that she wanted to live-stream the ceremony again this year.
Board member Jason Adler expressed concern at the board meeting that certain costs, such as property and liability insurance and the cost of benefits, were still uncertain.
“A lot of the stuff seems unsettled,” Adler said.
O’Donnell said that if those items ended up being more than expected, they would have to find some way to carve that money out of the already “tight” budget.
Board member Jack Scherban, chair of the finance committee, said he was pleased.
“I think this is a solid budget,” said Scherban.
The Board of Education is expected to bring the budget to a vote on February 7.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to note the closure of the Pierson School, and include additional figures.