COLCHESTER — Residents packed a four-hour meeting on Tuesday to argue for and against the Board of Education’s proposed budget increase of 9.83 percent — including a $1.2 million increase in the district’s special education costs.
The meeting, designed so that the Board of Finance could ask questions about the budget proposed by the Board of Education, also heard questions and comments from a number of members of the public asking about the possibility of alternative revenue sources and emphasizing the need to invest in the schools.
On February 23, the Board of Education voted to approve a 9.83 percent increase in the school budget, bringing the total cost to about $46.1 million. The budget increase includes additional school security officers and camera monitoring, paying for some positions previously funded through grants, as well as a substantial rise in special education costs and increases in teacher and administrative salaries.
Superintendent Dan Sullivan III told the board that the budget increase was partially driven by the elimination of the coronavirus relief grants. When the school district received the federal funding, the administration began paying some district staff salaries out of the temporary grants rather than the yearly budget.
As a result, several positions, including a preschool teacher, a kindergarten teacher and a special education teacher, needed to have their salaries returned to the general budget this year. In addition, two new staff members hired with grant money — a special education supervisor and a kindergarten teacher — will also need to be funded through the general budget.
At a public hearing on March 7, one resident asked Sullivan what would happen if the budget increase had to be dropped to 5 percent. Sullivan replied that there were several programs that could be cut, including band at the intermediate and middle schools and full-day kindergarten.
“Without question we see the value of full day kindergarten, but it is not a state requirement,” Sullivan wrote in a community email on March 17. “We also take pride in the strength of the music program, but we could reduce the band positions as we also offer general music.”
A number of people spoke in favor of the budget proposal, telling board members that the rate of inflation and a long-time refusal to fund what was needed for the schools had placed the town in this position.
“The Board of Finance had the gall to sit up at the table two weeks ago and say that they wouldn’t cut the band or do anything to hurt the students. Yet when they cut the budget to an arbitrary number, that is exactly what they’re doing,” said Jeremy MacKenzie. “When you continually provide less funding than the inflation rate, you are effectively cutting the schools.”
Residents also debated what the loss of full-day kindergarten or Pre-K would mean for parents in the community.
“My understanding is that the average price of daycare full-time in Connecticut, uh, and this is readily available from multiple sources online, is [in the] order of 11 to $13,000 a year,” said resident Vince Rose. “So you may not consider it a tax increase, but that is what it effectively is for those affected people.”
Others questioned the Board of Education’s rationale for the increase. Jason LaChapelle, a selectman in Colchester, said that the town has increased its per-pupil spending on education by 42 percent over the last decade.
“It’s not about the money. It’s how we spend the money,” said LaChapelle.
LaChapelle also questioned the board’s decision to hire the superintendent at a salary of $215,000 per year — an increase of about $36,000 above the base salary of the previous superintendent. LaChapelle said that with benefits, the increase amounts to about a $60,000 increase over the previous superintendent.
Board of Education members said that the superintendent’s salary was comparable to other superintendents in the surrounding districts. And Board of Education Chair Alex Oliphant said that Sullivan was being paid more because he had a higher level of experience than former superintendent Jeffrey Burt.
Oliphant said at the meeting that over the last 10 years, the district had received about half of what they asked for from the town. In the last five years, the school budget has increased by an average of .68 percent yearly, with a few years showing a negative change based on declining revenue.
But in an email to the Board of Education dated March 15, Board of Finance Chair Andrea Migliaccio questioned the Board of Education’s budgeting methods, and also pushed back against the proposed cuts.
“In no budgetary year have we ever threatened teachers or programming like you have this year. Even when our state threatened substantial cuts, our BOE did not pass the financial woe onto the classroom,” said Migliaccio. “Your inflammatory narrative and scare tactics is a low for our community.”
Migliaccio also demanded an explanation for the cost increase in the district’s Special Education line of $1.2 million, accusing the Board of Education of a “failure to provide financial oversight” amounting to “a clear act of willful blindness.”
“I reached out to the auditors, attorneys and other politicians to find that under no circumstances would our town be in a position to absorb this increase without reimbursement despite your claims that our town must bear the full cost,” Migliaccio wrote.
A memo to Sullivan from Amy Emory, the district’s director of pupil services and special education, said that the increases in cost reflected students being placed in specialized programs outside of the district, including new special education students who had just moved to the town and students needing new placements because their needs had increased.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Emory said that one student in particular, because of his highly unusual needs, had to be placed in a specialized school outside of the state of Connecticut.
Although the state will reimburse the district 77 percent of the cost of special education for up to 4.5 times the cost to educate a regular education student, Emory said that because the school is outside of the state, it doesn’t qualify for reimbursement.
Board of Education member Chris Rivers said he had spoken to the chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, and said he was “optimistic” about the possibility of getting some relief at the state level.
Board members also discussed whether it would be possible to use some of the money put aside from the district’s budget each year in a capital reserve fund. According to budget data, $2.4 million has been put aside in the capital reserve fund over the last 10 years, but Migliaccio said she’s not sure how much of that money has been spent over time.
One resident also raised the possibility of using money from the town’s undesignated fund balance, which currently contains about $8 million.
But Board of Finance member Mike Egan warned against using the undesignated fund balance for one-time expenses. Board of Finance member Art Shilosky also said that using the undesignated fund balance to balance a budget could put the town’s bond rating in jeopardy.
Board of Education member Margo Gignac said she has watched the services available in the district decrease overtime, and has seen the differences in the schools between when her oldest child and her younger children attended — fewer English teachers, a loss of a guidance counselor, music, gym and art teachers. She pointed out that the district used to have an alternative program for students who weren’t successful in traditional school, and also used to have free preschool. The Gifted and Talented program, she said, has also been cut.
“Over a decade … of watching [my kids] go through the schools, volunteering at the school and seeing how every single year they are doing more with less, we’re just at a point that there is no more you can do. You can only pinch that penny so far,” she said.
Gignac told CT Examiner that with the struggles that students faced during COVID, both academically and emotionally, was another reason the district shouldn’t be cutting its funding.
“We just have such great administrators in our district and such a good, solid group of teachers and it’d really be a shame to see that fall apart because we didn’t want to make that investment into our own community,” said Gignac.
Board of Finance member Tim Vaillencourt said that despite the discussion at the meeting, he was still disinclined to vote for the 9.83 percent increase.
“To be honest, I just don’t think that kind of increase is responsible and sustainable for the entirety of the population,” said Vaillencourt. “A lot of people in this room said they don’t mind paying the extra money … They could afford it. I could if I had to. I don’t want to, but I could. But there’s a lot of people that can’t.”
But Board of Finance member Mike Egan told CT Examiner that while the board should look for potential reductions, they needed to be aware that inflation was affecting everything.
“Especially in these times, we have to be very cognizant of the fact that there’s a lot of inflationary pressure on not just salaries, but also everything else that goes into a Board of Education budget,” said Egan. “So I think we have to look for efficiencies where we can find them … [but] you can only find so many efficiencies without actually getting to the meat and potatoes, which is the programs and the teachers, essentially.”
The Board of Finance will discuss the education budget in its regular meeting on April 12 at 7 p.m.