EAST LYME — The district administration is recommending cutting 18.5 teaching positions next year in response to what Superintendent Jeffrey Newton referred to as “the highest budget I’ve ever brought forward in my 10 years as a superintendent.”
Newton’s proposed budget, which he presented at a Board of Education meeting on Monday, requests just under $57.9 million — a 6.97% increase from last year. He said that the major drivers for the budget increase were contractual wage increases for staff, minimum wage increase, a rise in benefit costs and the impact of inflation.
Newton estimated that inflationary costs — a combination of a 7.5 percent general inflation rate, an assumed 6 percent increase in health insurance costs and the increase of the state minimum wage, had contributed nearly a million dollars to the budget request.
This budget proposal comes as the district is still trying to address a budget deficit of $677,000 from the current year — the result of an increase in costs of utilities, special education and a 10.5 percent increase in health insurance costs compared to the previous year — twice the rate of increase that the district had budgeted for.
The positions that would be cut in next year’s budget include four elementary school teachers, three elementary school technology teachers, five paraprofessionals, an instructional technology coach, library assistants and staff members who work in the district’s Coastal program. Seven of those positions were originally funded through grant money.
Newton said that in deciding which positions to eliminate, the district tried to make the changes that would have the least impact on students.
“There’s no good in any of this. We just tried to target areas that could potentially be the least disruptive to students,” said Newton.
But he said that reductions would negatively impact students as the district continues to try and help students overcome both the academic and emotional effects of the pandemic.
Annaliese Spaziano, the district’s assistant superintendent, said that there were 500 students in the district who were identified as needing special education services, as well as 300 who receive additional support outside of special education. Newton said that having support staff on site allowed the district to keep students with special needs in the district rather than sending them to outside schools, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Teachers also weighed in on the changes. Julie Horner, a kindergarten teacher, said that teachers needed support staff like instructional assistants in the classrooms.
“We don’t want them to continue to be decreased, because it will erode our schools,” said Horner. “We shouldn’t just be cutting them because we have a problem right now.”
Scott Mahon, representative for the East Lyme Education Association, said that he was concerned about the “ripple effects” of the proposed cut in staff, including the potential for larger class sizes and the loss of support staff in the media center — particularly with students learning what he called “21st century instruction”
“When we reduce support staff such as paras in the classroom, that directly affects what the teachers can do in the classroom,” said Mahon.
In regard to the current year’s budget shortfall, Newton said that the district, through a freeze on supply purchases and a hiring freeze, had managed to reduce the deficit from $677,000 to $455,000.
Board of Education Chair Eric Bergman said that a mild winter might result in additional cost savings, but that any additional cuts — like decreasing staff or cutting spring sports at the high school — would be “pretty draconian.”
One board of education member pointed out that the Board of Finance had decreased the district’s initial requested budget last year by $500,000. Newton said that any additional leftover funds the district has at the end of the year go back to the town, making it difficult for them to address shortfalls.
“We are so razor thin with budgets — there’s very little fluff in our budgets,” said Newton.
He suggested the possibility of putting aside a percentage of the district’s budget going forward to have for situations like this. The state allows districts to put aside two percent of their budgets in a separate fund each year.
The board plans to meet January 30 for further discussion about the budget.