EAST LYME — Board of Education members plan to propose an 8.88 percent increase in the district’s budget at a public hearing later this month, challenging Superintendent Jeffrey Newton’s original proposal of just under 7 percent, which would have reduced 18.5 staff members across the district.
The new proposal retains the elementary school teachers, technology teachers, library aides and paraprofessionals that were going to be cut as a way of compensating for increased health insurance rates and general inflation.
At a meeting on February 6, representatives of the three unions representing teachers, paraprofessionals and other district staff pushed back hard against the cuts, saying they would ultimately have negative effects on students. Board of Education members largely agreed, saying they wanted to consider raising Newton’s budget request from a nearly 7 percent increase to a nearly 9 percent increase — about $4.89 million more than last year.
In addition to the staff positions, the 8.88 percent increase assumes a 12 percent increase in health insurance costs next year and retains funding for capital projects.
At a meeting on Tuesday, Board of Education members discussed the possibility of each cut but concluded that all of the items needed to stay in the budget.
Board member Candice Carlson underscored her desire to keep class sizes small at the elementary school level, which she said the district had done deliberately.
“We can go higher, we can put more students in a room. But then you lose, I think, quality of service and care,” said Carlson.
Newton said that if the four elementary teachers were retained in the budget, he would place one teacher in the third grade at Niantic Center School, which has a large class size. An additional teacher would be placed in the fourth grade at Flanders Elementary where, he said, the current third graders had been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic and were not catching up academically at the same rate as other students.
The other two teachers could either be assigned to those two elementary schools or moved to Lily B. Haynes, where, Newton said, the district tried to keep the class sizes particularly small because of the large number of students with special needs.
Board members asked if the district could defer several capital projects – totalling $186,877 – that included restoration of a Pre-K playground at Niantic Center, carpet replacement at the middle and high schools and hazmat abatement at the central office. Carlson said she thought some of those projects could be put off longer, but other board members disagreed, saying that “cosmetic” things like carpeting and paint were important for morale and the public’s view of the buildings.
“You could have the best equipment in the boiler room possible. But if the paint’s peeling off the walls or the tile is peeling up or it just looks terrible, what impression are you giving to the rest of the public in town?” said facilities director Chris Lund.
And although the state of Connecticut has lowered its estimated health insurance increase for next year to about 10 percent, board members said it was better to “leave a cushion.”
“I would be leery of lowering it to the 10 from the 12th only because we are having such a tough budget here this year, climbing out of the debt from the health insurance issue,” said Board of Education member Jamie Barr Shelburn, referring to current fiscal year’s $455,000 shortfall due to a rise in healthcare costs that the district underestimated.
According to finance director Maryanna Stevens, assuming that revenues and the town budget from last year stayed the same, the 8.88 percent increase would equate to an additional $450 per year for a home assessed at $300,000. But Stevens and members of the Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen warned that it was too early to know what the impact would be, since the town budget and the revenues for next year haven’t been calculated.
Board members asked if the district administration could look further into applying for grants in areas like security and mental health services, and whether central office or administration staff could be reduced. Newton and principals from the middle and high school said they were already struggling to keep up with administrative duties, particularly because of the time-consuming investigations involving bullying and social media.
The board will vote on the budget after a public hearing on February 27.