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Stonington - In the largest turnout for a municipal meeting here in at least 25 years, a raucous but respectful crowd of more than 400 residents and students packed the high school auditorium Thursday night and called on the Board of Finance to restore the $525,000 it has cut from the 2014-15 education budget as well as $1 million in safety related school improvements.
Speaker after speaker was interrupted by applause; one parent, Sue Jones, received a long, standing ovation. An overflow crowd sat in the adjacent commons and watched a video feed of the hearing.
Jones said that continuing to cut the budget each year "will hold our children back when they are striving to go out and do great things in the world."
Parent Cindy Nadeau added that maintaining the quality of the schools has a great impact on economic development. "People base their decision on where to live not on the condition of the sewer plant but the reputation of the school district," she said.
Other speakers warned the town is getting a reputation for not caring about education, and that will hurt property values.
Still others said Stonington is no longer considered on the same level as East Lyme and Waterford when it comes to quality education. They added that the original $1 million increase is needed to preserve the current level of education and is not out of line with increases sought by other area towns.
The finance board will meet again at 7 p.m. Monday at the high school to decide whether to restore the school funding before finalizing a budget to send to a referendum later this spring.
Many of the speakers called on the finance board to restore the money and let voters decide whether they want to support the budget and a tax increase. Speakers told stories about how the education budget has affected them as students or their children.
This year's high school valedictorian, Matthew Fields, said the reason he has been offered $25,000 a year in college scholarships is because of the education he has received in the town's schools. "But now you're taking that away," he said.
A total of 1,350 people have now signed a petition calling on the finance board to restore the budget.
When the budget does go to a vote, parent Rob Marseglia urged all town officials to publicly support the budget once one is agreed to.
"This is critical for getting the budget passed," he said.
Teacher Bruce Yarnall pointed out a variety of cuts made in recent years that have never been restored for students.
"As a town, we can do better," he said.
The currently proposed $58.2 million town and school budget and its 0.5 percent increase calls for a 0.49-mill tax increase, the largest hike in six years.
Finance board Chairman John O'Brien opened the meeting by saying that to restore the $525,000 cut from the school budget, the board would need to increase the tax rate by 0.69 mills. Adding back the cuts to school capital items would boost the tax rate by 1.09 mills.
The proposed $34 million school budget is now $337,000 more than the current budget, but school officials say it will take $1 million to provide the current level of education because of increases in staff salaries and health insurance, fuel, utilities, special education tuition and other costs.
To reduce the budget by $525,000, Superintendent Van Riley has recommended eliminating $268,000 for 5.2 teaching positions in various subjects, with middle school French and high school Mandarin among the programs that would be eliminated.
A host of sports and extracurricular activities would be cut along with music programs, textbooks and materials.
These cuts are in addition to the ones the school board made before presenting its budget proposal to the finance board. Those eliminated eight teaching positions through attrition as well as positions for five paraprofessionals and one computer technician.
O'Brien said the town's undesignated fund balance now totals $10.6 million, $1 million more than what the town needs to keep on hand for an emergency. Some have urged the board to use some of that money to restore the school budget to the full request.