GROTON — The school district is requesting a $6.1 million, or 8.27 percent, budget increase this year, a third of which would pay to keep staff initially hired using federal coronavirus money.
Superintendent Susan Austin said she hoped students would have improved enough academically and socially from the effects of the pandemic that the district would no longer need additional tutors by the time the federal funds expired.
But, she said, “I still see there’s a great need. Our kids are not all-the-way OK. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Many districts in the state are facing similar fiscal cliffs, as federal money they received during the pandemic expires in September. Schools must now ask their local governments to absorb the salaries of staff that school administrators say are critical to providing students with a top-quality education.
Among the positions the district administration is asking to keep are 27 tutors — 19 in math or reading and eight social-emotional learning tutors. Austin said students needed more small group and one-on-one academic support.
“The social emotional learning tutors — the principals said, ‘Please don’t take those away. They really have been worth their weight in gold,’” she said.
Austin noted that the district is also utilizing a state grant program offering high-dosage tutoring in mathematics; at least six of the district’s math tutors are now being paid through this grant rather than federal dollars.
Administrators also asked to retain security guards, social workers, community coordinators and a part-time custodian, as well as seven teaching positions at the middle and high schools — all of which were paid for by coronavirus funds, and will cost the district about $2.2 million to keep next year.
Austin said when the district built the new consolidated middle school, which opened in September 2020, the expectation was to reduce the number of teachers at each grade level.
“That didn’t work because we had just the same amount of kids,” she explained, adding that more teachers were necessary to run the building and keep class sizes down.
During COVID, she said, the need for security guards increased as well.
Human Resources Director Laurie LePine, estimated that the district had eliminated about the same number of coronavirus-funded positions as they were requesting to keep. The district had also cut back on social-emotional learning tutors, community coordinators and security guards, she said.
Other fiscal challenges are on the horizon. According to Austin, the district fell just shy of the required student count to be eligible for a $500,000 supplemental grant from the Department of Defense, designed for schools with at least 20 percent of students being children of military members. And even if the student threshold was met, it’s unclear whether the federal government would continue the grant. This means the district is requesting an additional $1 million in supplies, including software and technology.
Groton has also asked the school district to take on additional costs of property insurance that were previously carried by the town. According to Finance Director David Fleig, the district had been paying only 34 percent of the property insurance despite owning 65 percent of the property.
Town Manager John Burt told CT Examiner that, in the case of school construction projects, the town is responsible for bearing the property insurance costs until the building is finished, at which point it transfers to the district. He said this switch should have happened last year, but they had realized it too late in the budget process.
Other factors like contractual wage increases, and rising transportation and utilities costs round out the remainder of the requested budget hike.
According to Flieg, the district has averaged a budget increase of 1 percent in the last five years — with the highest last year at about 3 percent — and an average increase of 0.5 percent over the previous five years.
“Running a district on a zero or a 1 [percent increase] — you can call it flat, but it’s not really flat. It’s a decline because it’s taking away, robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Austin said. “And this is where it puts us. Hence, at the same time, with COVID funds going away, we’re seeing this 8.27 [percent increase].”
State data shows that Groton’s per-pupil expenditure in 2022 was about $18,000 per student, compared to the state average of about $19,700. The gap between the state average per-pupil funding and Groton’s per-pupil funding has more than doubled in the last six years.
Groton’s per-pupil expenditure is one of the lowest in the surrounding area, below both New London, with a per-pupil expenditure of $20,300, and Norwich, with an expenditure of $20,800.
The Board of Education will workshop the budget at additional meetings this month, and will vote on the budget at a later date.