COLCHESTER — Cutting full-day preschool and kindergarten, eliminating middle school French and Spanish classes and charging students for parking and band instruments are all on the table for next year, according to the Board of Education’s proposal to reduce its budget request by $1.3 million.
Earlier this month, the Board of Finance told school board members that they needed to reduce their proposed 10 percent budget increase — amounting to about $4 million — by $1.3 million. According to Superintendent Dan Sullivan, the budget increases were being driven by a large increase in special education costs.
On Tuesday, the Board of Education met to discuss Sullivan’s proposed cuts.
Few people were happy about them.
Sullivan said the administrators had looked to make reductions around things that the state did not require the district to provide — such as full-day kindergarten. If the reductions are accepted, Colchester would become the only district in Connecticut not offering full-day kindergarten. Preschool tuition would also increase from $75 per month to $200 per month.
“We’ve looked at the good, the bad and the ugly, and this is the really bad of an ugly situation,” Sullivan said.
‘We are not benefiting our children’
Multiple parents came forward at both the Board of Education meeting and a Board of Finance meeting on Wednesday to protest the proposed cuts.
“Of course, the citizens do not support drastic programming cuts, but how do we reduce to what you deem affordable?” parent Ashley Zaugg asked the finance board. “Frankly, as a parent, it feels like you’re ignoring parents, because we will be footing the bill of all of this increased revenue and all of these increased costs.”
Several parents asked the finance board to let voters decide on a higher budget at referendum rather than making cuts, but Board of Finance Chair Andrea Migliaccio said it was important to keep school-to-town spending at a 73:27 ratio to protect the town’s bond rating.
A few members of the public were in favor of the cuts. Selectman Jason LaChapelle said he felt the Board of Finance had already compromised “pretty drastically” with the school board. He said he felt the problem was not that the district didn’t have enough money, but that it was being managed poorly.
And Colchester resident DeAva Lambert said she felt it was poor practice to increase the budget without seeing better academic results from students.
In addition to changes to kindergarten and preschool, Sullivan proposed eliminating world languages at the middle school — saving the district about $203,500 next year — and cut two kindergarten teachers and a first-grade teacher. Sullivan said it would be possible to cut the kindergarten and first-grade teachers and still keep the ideal class size of 19 to 20 children.
But Board of Education member Michelle Millington said at the Tuesday meeting that if kindergarten numbers increased at the last minute, they might not be able to find a teacher to fill the position.
“I feel like good luck trying to get a kindergarten teacher at the last minute in the middle of a teacher shortage,” Millington said. “We have such talented and dedicated people in this district, and I’m really worried about losing someone that we really like.”
Board of Education member Margo Gignac also noted that if middle school students were no longer taking a world language, they would be placed in study hall instead.
“Middle school kids having a workshop and a study hall — not the ideal situation,” Gignac said. “We are not benefiting our children by doing that.”
‘Lots of other areas’ to cut
Board of Finance member Tim Vaillancourt expressed frustration that Sullivan was willing to propose eliminating full-day preschool and kindergarten but hadn’t looked at other potential reductions, like supplies. Migliaccio and member John Thomas echoed those concerns.
“I just want to note the unwillingness of anybody to even discuss supply accounts, but yet we’re gonna just throw kindergarten on the chopping block,” Vaillancourt said. “There are lots of other areas that can be cut besides what’s on this list.”
But Sullivan said the district had already cut supplies down to what he felt was the bare minimum.
“If we thought we could reduce it, we would’ve reduced it. We brought you in the lowest honest number to begin with,” he said.
He noted that part of the cost of supplies was student Chromebooks that had previously been paid for through federal coronavirus relief funds, which are set to expire next year.
Jenny Sevigny, a Colchester resident and a teacher in another district, said she felt the administration had done the best it could to reduce the supply items, and that reducing them further would place a burden on teachers to find ways to pay for their own supplies.
“Getting rid of full-day kindergarten shouldn’t be an option. But you also can’t just say there’s no supplies. You can’t say there’s no paper, there’s no pencils, there’s no computers,” Sevigny said.
Charging for band
An additional set of proposals includes charging high schoolers $100 per year for parking and charging $360 per year at the intermediate school and the middle school for instrument lessons.
Board member Margo Gignac said she felt that charging money for band and parking would make Colchester Public Schools “less marketable” to parents in other districts who might want to send their children there, and would drive families in Colchester to send their children to other districts.
Board members also expressed concern that charging for instrument lessons, rather than increasing revenue for the school, would just make parents decide they could not afford to pay.
Jim Schuman, a band director who lives in town, told the finance board on Wednesday that charging students for lessons would make the program unsustainable and would affect low-income students the most.
“What you’re going to see is very quickly a huge drop in enrollment. The kids that can’t afford instruments are going to be the ones that get cut out of that. Those are the kids that need it the most. Those are the kids that I spend my nights with, helping. The kids that have less money and nowhere else to go,” he said.
But LaChapelle said he felt it was reasonable to ask parents to pay for instrument lessons.
“I think that makes a lot of sense. I think that’s fiscally responsible,” he said.
Some Board of Education members asked whether the security enhancements that Sullivan proposed — which include adding guards to each of the schools — could be reduced, but the superintendent said he didn’t want to have to pick which schools had their security upgraded.
“I would hate to pick two schools and have something happen at the other ones next year,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also proposed eliminating transportation to some of the technical high schools, noting that the East Hampton and Lebanon school districts would be willing to let Colchester students going to Vinal Technical High School or Windham Technical High School, respectively, to ride on their buses.
The district would continue to bus students to Norwich Technical High School.
He also put forward several “operational” proposals — reductions in health care, legal services and capital projects
Most Board of Education members said they supported the operational reductions, but Sullivan said that in conversations with the district’s insurer, the company referred to the reduction as “risky” because of the increase of people getting elective procedures done post-COVID.
Mike Egan and Mike Hayes, the two Democrats on the Board of Finance, said the group needed to look harder at the town’s revenue and what impact the school budget would have on the mill rate.
In addition to the $1.3 million in cuts, the Board of Finance reduced the school board’s budget by another $1 million by taking money from several accounts to fund the district’s special education costs, capital improvements and a payment toward an energy-efficiency review that took place nearly a decade ago.
The Board of Finance will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the budget further.