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Stonington - More than 125 people packed the high school commons Thursday night to criticize the Board of Finance for cutting the proposed $1 million school budget increase for 2014-15 by $663,000.
Superintendent of Schools Van Riley presented a plan to cut $525,000 from the budget after factoring in a $138,000 savings due to new insurance cost projections that showed that item would be less than expected.
Riley recommended eliminating $268,000 for 5.2 teaching positions in various subjects, and $61,000 for sports and extracurricular activities including all freshman sports and middle school basketball as well as some funding for crew, lacrosse, sailing and cheerleading. He also recommended $38,000 in other staff cuts and a $40,000 reduction in materials. Finally, Riley would eliminate $120,000 budgeted for additional staff to conduct teacher evaluations mandated by the state.
"I don't like any of these, but I have to cut something," he told the crowd. The board agreed with his recommendations.
These cuts are in addition to the ones the school board made before presenting its budget proposal to the finance board. These included eliminating eight teaching positions through attrition as well as positions for five paraprofessionals and one computer technician.
Riley warned that if the finance board continues to hold the school budget increase to 1 percent annually over the next four years, that would mean $7.6 million less for eduction. This would translate to a cut of 100 teachers and class sizes of 50 students.
Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco opened the meeting saying it was a sad day for the teachers, administrators and community, especially the students.
He pointed out that while Stonington is the 45th wealthiest community out of the state's 169 municipalities, it has the 155th lowest tax rate and 114th in per-pupil spending.
"Our children deserve better. Stonington can do better," he said.
Todisco said the school board's original budget cut by the finance board was "fiscally responsible" as it called for no new programs and eliminated positions.
Riley said that the school board had already reduced his budget proposal by $1 million before presenting it to the finance board. That $1 million was needed to just provide the current level of service, he said.
The $34 million school budget, which represents a $337,000 increase over the current budget, will go to an April 10 public hearing at which a large group of residents is expected to ask the finance board to restore the $525,000 and let the community vote on the budget with no school cuts.
"You're allowing six members of the Board of Finance to hold your children and their future hostage," said veteran high school teacher Michael Freeman, who urged parents to go to the finance board members and demand they do what is right for their children.
Finance board members have said the cuts are needed to get the budget down to a level that voters will approve, in this case one with a 0.49-mill tax increase, the largest hike in six years.
The finance board has also cut slightly more than $1 million in school-related capital improvements, many of which are security upgrades in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
If these are being cut, Riley suggested cutting $421,000 in capital items from the town budget and using that money for education. All the eliminated capital items could then be placed in a separate bond issue for voters to approve.
He said another option is to transfer $2.9 million from other parts of the town budget to education to reflect the percentage of the budget spent on education in other towns.
Some speakers also raised the possibility of seeking a charter change to ensure finance board seats are contested in future elections. Members are now chosen by the Democratic and Republican town committees and run unopposed. Efforts to change the charter have been unsuccessful in the past.