EAST LYME — After teachers, parents and students pressed against the district’s proposed staffing cuts, board of education members on Monday said they wanted to consider raising their budget request by a little over $1 million – from almost 7 percent to a nearly 9 percent increase over last year’s school spending.
Last month, Superintendent Jeffrey Newton told the Board of Education that he was recommending a nearly seven percent increase in the district’s budget. The hike, said Newton, was driven by a 7.5 percent general inflation rate, an assumed six percent increase in health insurance costs, contractual wage increases and an increase in the state minimum wage.
To partially offset cost increases, Newton also proposed cutting 18.5 full-time positions, including four elementary school teachers, three elementary school technology teachers, five para-professionals, an instructional technology coach, library assistants and staff members who work in the district’s Coastal program.
But members of labor unions representing teachers, paraeducators and school staff crowded into the high school on Monday to protest the proposed staffing cuts, and together with parents, told the board of the difficulties students were still having, both academically and emotionally, because of the pandemic.
Amy Ferrier, the mother of a third grader at Flanders Elementary, and a kindergarten teacher in an outside district, said she felt the smaller class sizes were critical.
“I hate to continually use the pandemic as an excuse. However, it is a reality we are all facing,” said Ferrier.
Chris Faulkner, a teacher at Lillie B. Haynes and CEA member, pointed out the role of technology in the workplace and the “edge” it would give students in college, and mentioned that Electric Boat was in the middle of an expansion after gaining a contract to build additional submarines.
“Electric Boat is just one of the technology-based institutions in our area. Isn’t it important for our children to be ready for an opportunity that is right in their own backyard?” said Faulkner.
Chris Majchrzak, president of the local AFSCME chapter representing the paraeducator union, said that her students need adult supervision to focus on their work, and that she’s seen increased emotional challenges that paraeducators assist with.
“I frequently take walks around the building with students to calm them down,” she said.
Pat Hesney, president of the AFSCME union local chapter representing library aides and other staff workers, said that the work now performed by library aides would be placed on teachers and guidance counselors, who are already overworked. Other library assistants said their work allowed librarians to focus their energies on teaching students.
Board of Education member Catherine Steel said she felt the board should be careful not to eliminate low-salary positions like paraeducators and library aides.
“They are our heart and hands,” said Steel.
Prior to the meeting, Newton offered several alternatives to the initial proposal, including cutting paraeducator positions rather than teachers, resulting in smaller class sizes but with less support. Another alternative would be to negotiate with the union to have the teachers cover recess and lunch duty, eliminating the need for additional monitors. Cutting monitors would save about $145,000.
But board members said they felt that no matter how thoroughly they tried to comb through the budget, they were not going to find the cost savings that would allow them to keep the 18.5 staff positions.
“We don’t have a lot of levers to pull,” said Board Chair Eric Bauman.
Board member Leigh Gianakos said that she felt the board needed to have a “frank discussion” about increasing the amount they would request from the Board of Finance. She said that given fixed costs, there wasn’t much else to cut.
“I think we might be able to make some small gains here or there, but at the end of the day, I don’t think our big picture is going to change,” said Gianakos.
An 8.98 percent cut would bring the budget to just under $59 million — an increase of about $4.89 million over last year.
Gianakos said she felt that the positions were critical for student well-being, particularly given efforts to improve the school culture and climate.
“I don’t take the fiscal responsibility aspect of this lightly and — in our job to do right by our kids and our district — I can’t get behind cutting those positions. They are all incredibly essential and … I do feel that if we eliminate those now, we are going to be paying for them later,” she said.
“What we know is that we really need these people – these positions – back,” said board member Bill Derry. “We’re working on a committee that’s trying to improve climate and culture — and prior to this budget even coming out … I feel as though the morale needed a boost.”
Board member Candice Carlson said she felt that eliminating positions would be harmful to the students, particularly those with the highest needs.
“What we talk about educating as a district — we talk about the whole child … all of these things, from the moment I saw this list, it spoke to me as very impactful on students and the very people that need those services the most,” said Carlson.
Board member Jaime Shelburn said she felt frustrated that the state and federal government had left the towns in the position of shouldering education costs.
“I can’t in any clean conscience cut sports or cut clubs. I can’t even cut teachers. I can’t cut aid, I can’t cut staff when the state and the federal government can’t appropriately fund education,” said Shelburn. “They leave it to the backs of municipalities and the taxpayers to fund the education system when it should be a state and federal government problem.”
Board members talked about the potential for other options, including delaying some facilities projects. But Director of Facilities Chris Lund said the majority of those projects had already been “kicked down the road.”
And parents and board members also pushed against cutting freshman sports or asking outside youth programs to pay to use school facilities.
Board member Esteban Garcia did say he believed the district needed to look at class sizes. Newton had said in a prior meeting that if the district kept all its elementary school teachers, some class sizes would drop below 15 students.
The board plans to call a Special Meeting on the budget on Monday, Feb. 13 and an additional “coffee talk” either before or after to discuss the budget with the public.