STONINGTON — “The honeymoon is over,” said school Superintendent Maryann Butler in discussions of her request for a seven percent budget increase.
The budget hike of about $2.9 million was presented to the Board of Education on Thursday as a first draft and is driven by a combination of new contract negotiations and the loss of federal coronavirus funds.
Last year, the district requested an 8.2 percent budget increase and eventually received an hike of 6.8 percent.
Director of Finance and Personnel Alisha Stripling explained at the meeting that Stonington was negotiating contracts with four different unions at once, leading to a 6.4 percent increase in salaries and benefits across the district.
“We know that as minimum wage is going up, so is the competition, and so are everyone else’s wages,” Stripling said.
One of the largest increases comes from the need to bring in more substitute teachers. Stripling said that there had been a large number of teacher absences and teachers taking an absence with Family and Medical Leave Act. While she was “hesitantly” optimistic that the number of absences was dropping, she noted that many people had gotten sick with RSV and COVID during the holidays.
“Substitutes is a line that we can’t just say ‘we’re going to reduce staff there,’” said Stripling. “I can’t keep those substitute teacher lines down for next year. They have to be increased, and if we’re going to find savings, it has to be somewhere else.”
Board of Education member Dan Kelley asked whether it was necessary to use long-term building substitutes — who cost $240 a day plus benefits — rather than daily substitutes, who cost $150 per day. But Stripling said that building substitutes give the students a level of continuity; she also said that the district had cut two substitutes this year, leaving only one at each building.
“When we have absences like we have right now, that building administrators are spending obscene amounts of time trying to cover, we need to know that we at least have that one person,” said Stripling.
The district is also proposing to budget for a number of full- and part-time positions originally been paid for with coronavirus grant funds — including three full-time teachers at West Vine Street School, an interventionist at DMS, an academic interventionist and a dean at Stonington Middle School, a part-time science teacher at the high school and several substitute teachers – for a total of about $724,000.
Other requests include an ELA tutor and additional science teacher at the high school, the ability to buy out vacation days for several positions that struggle to take vacations and an expansion of an eSports team at the High School.
Butler said that other high schools in the area had eSports teams that had become so popular that they were attracting college recruiters interested in offering scholarships for the online sport.
“It’s a way to include students in a competitive arena that may not be, uh, interested in competing in what I would call a legacy athletic competition,” said Butler.
The district proposed about $7,500 to be set aside for the eSports team. The district also asked to reinstate winter cheerleading and add a volleyball team at the middle school.
Stripling said there was some good news in the budget — she didn’t expect an increase in transportation costs, and electricity costs dropped by 10 percent. Health insurance, she said, was only increasing 6 percent, compared to a nearly 20 percent increase two years ago.
Butler also reminded the board that the town was growing by about 500 new apartments, which will add to the budget needs.
“The needs of the students have changed. The mental health needs are so astronomical. And just so different than your standard academic setting that we’re used to budgeting for,” added Stripling.
Kelley said he understood that the components in the budget were all important, but said he felt the board needed to look at possible cuts before the proposed budget went before the Board of Finance.
“Sometimes the hard work needs to be done as far as making the tough decisions. Because there’s no way in heck this 7.02 percent is … going to fly, there’s no way a 6 percent [increase] is going to fly or a 5 percent [increase] is going to fly, not only with the Board of Finance, but also with the citizens at large.”
But Butler warned that cutting even 1 percent — about $445,000 — was the equivalent of eliminating about 4 or 5 staff members.
“It’s deep. The cuts will be deep,” said Butler.
The administration will return to the Board of Education with a modified proposal in two weeks.