Groton Schools Face ‘Shocking’ 13.5% Budget Increase 


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

GROTON — The Board of Education’s original request for an 8 percent school budget increase has spiked to 13.5 percent, or a total of $11 million — a change that has prompted numerous questions and left other town bodies shocked.

The additional 5.5 percent increase was driven by a rise in health care costs, Finance Director David Fleig explained at a Monday meeting of the school board, the Town Council and the Representative Town Meeting.

“I think this budget is sort of shocking. I don’t know how else to say it,” Mayor Rachael Franco said. “I think our community is going to be absolutely in shock over this.”

Town Councillor Bruce Jones said, by his calculations, the budget increase would amount to a 2.5 mill rate increase for residents, which would translate to a $670 annual property tax increase for an individual with a home valued at $250,000.

“It’s over a 20 percent increase that you’re asking on the town contribution. So, that’s significant, and alarming a little bit,” he said. 

Several council members questioned the superintendent’s request to shift staff members whose salaries were being paid using federal coronavirus funding to the school budget — an addition of 37 full-time and six part-time positions. 

“That’s not what we anticipated. Not what we all discussed at the time when we were doing the budget for the last several years during COVID,” councilor Juliette Parker said. 

Schools Superintendent Susan Austin said the district had hoped to phase out the positions — 23 of which are academic and social-emotional tutors — by the time the federal funds run out this September. But she said the students still needed those services. 

“That was the hope — that this thing called COVID that interrupted all of our lives, and our students lives, and their education, would be fixed by now. But it’s still a long haul, and I’m very sensitive to the fact that we need to really do all of our very best to make sure that gaps are closed and that kids are really realizing their education,” she said. 

But Parker questioned the value of the additional tutors based on students’ recent scores on state standardized exams. 

“Are they being really helped, with the tutors around?” she asked. “Because our numbers don’t look like they’re going any higher.” 

Councillor Jill Rusk echoed Parker, saying she had received feedback from “very concerned” residents about the additional staff being incorporated into the budget. 

“I’ve had a lot of people contact me,” Rusk said. “I believe those people are very important staff, I understand that, and I don’t wish them to not have a job. But that was not how they were brought on, and I think that if you’re not finding more grants to pay for those people, then we need to consider what we can do.” 

Franco criticized the district for not applying for state grant funding for HVAC repairs last year. According to Austin, the district needs to update HVAC systems at Charles Barnum Elementary School, Fitch High School, Catherine Kolnaski Magnet Elementary School and Northeast Academy Arts Magnet School. 

“There are a lot of people speaking about this and they’re very upset about it,” Franco said. 

Austin explained that the district needed a commitment from the town to match the state grant funding, which it hadn’t received. She said the district planned to apply for the grant this year. 

But Franco suggested that the district could have approached the Town Council to ask for the funding. 

“I think that was a missed opportunity, and there are many people that are doing stuff like that,” Franco said. 

Other costs driving up the budget include salary and benefits increases for teachers, $5.2 million in insurance costs, $200,000 in utilities and an additional $1 million in transportation costs due to a rise in busing costs. 

Another challenge, Austin said, was that the district lacked the required number of students to qualify for a supplemental grant from the Department of Defense, designed for schools with at least 20 percent of students being children of military members. This means the district needs to cover an additional $600,000 in technology costs. 

Austin said years of 1 and 2 percent budget increases — what she referred to as “level funding” — combined with recent inflation rates, had set the district up for the current budget needs. She also noted that the district had used its health care reserves to keep budgeting down in previous years. 

“We’ve utilized that in really healthy times, so now when it’s more challenging, we don’t have it to use,” she said. 

But council member Portia Bordelon criticized the district for adding positions to the Central Office rather than putting funding toward student needs. 

“Never once has this Board of Ed come before us and said, ‘Where can we make cuts where the students don’t see those staff — in Central Office?’ I’m not saying I want to cut anybody, but it should not be on the backs of students or the taxpayers,” she said. 

She criticized the district for not doing enough to close achievement gaps between white students and students of color, for what she saw as a lack of funding for extracurricular activities, a need for more paraeducators and the potential elimination of tutors. 

“I have trouble cutting something if it’s directly impacting students. We need to look for other ways to find cost savings up at the top. When you do it in your own home, you don’t take away your food budget, you don’t take away your car. You start cutting trips and leisure things and things that are not needed at the top,” she said. 

The district also incurred additional costs this year, including an anticipated $80,000 in unpaid lunch debt and several mechanical breakdowns at Mystic River Elementary School. And legislation that would have made the state responsible for covering magnet school tuitions — something that could have saved Groton money — may be reversed, according to a proposed change to the state budget. 

Austin noted that the town had received $10.6 million in additional revenue from a variety of state and federal education grants since 2018, an amount that Town Manager John Burt said had been used to avoid tax increases in earlier years. According to charts presented during the meeting, Groton’s per-pupil expenditure stands at about $18,000 per student, one of the lowest in the surrounding area. 

Based on her calculations, Franco said, the proposed budget hike would increase the per-pupil spending to nearly $21,000 — above Norwich and East Lyme, but still below Stonington and Waterford. 

“That would definitely jump us up way off the chart here. And I’ve always been a huge advocate for education for our students, truly am, and I understand it needs to be increased, but this is extremely quick and a lot all at once,” Franco said.

Board of Education Chair Jay Weitlauf emphasized that the budget proposed during the meeting was not the final budget, and that regular meetings are being held regarding the issue. A final budget is due to the Town Council by the end of February, with a public hearing to be held in March. 

School board member Ian Thomas said he wanted to delve more deeply into professional development and administrative costs, and that any budget reductions should be done in areas that didn’t affect student learning. 

“I’m all for professional development when we can afford it. But at this point, if we’re having to decide between tutors on a ground level that have direct contact with students, provide direct support for students or other positions that are not immediately impactful, then obviously we have to arrange our priorities in reaction to that,” Thomas said.

School board member Matthew Shulman said he, too, understood the shock of the budget request, but also recognized the educational needs that the budget was addressing, particularly regarding tutors.

“How I find as an individual, how we find as a board, what is an ‘acceptable’ level to protect the kids at the basic level of learning while not putting an onerous burden on the taxpayers is really the dilemma that I see myself facing,” Shulman said. “And honestly, I don’t know how I’m going to come down on it. I’m really torn.”

An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that there were breakdowns at Marine Science Magnet School in Groton. The story should have said Mystic River Elementary School. This has been corrected.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.