Schools Hope for No Further Budget Cuts

Branford Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez.
Branford Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez. Pam Johnson

Budgeting for state mandates and contractual obligations, while cutting staff and employing strategies such re-allocating funds, are reasons why school officials are hoping the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) will find no further cuts in the proposed 2013-14 district budget.

The district will slice away a full teaching team next year, with the money saved reallocated to strengthen other needed areas, said Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez. Hernandez called the concept of re-allocation the “underpinning” of this year’s budget proposal.

In March, the Board of Finance (BOF) voted on an overall percentage cut (versus line item cuts) of $259,373 to the BOE’s requested 2.62 percent annual increase. As it stands now, the $51.35 million proposed school budget creates a 2.1 percent increase, year-to-year.  Hernandez said the 2.1 percent increase request equates to $1,056,250 in “new dollars,” with most of the increase due to “contractual obligations.”

The RTM Education Committee will discuss school budget on May 6, followed by a full RTM budget vote on May 14.  Last year, the RTM cut a further $100,000 away from the school budget forwarded by the BOF.

The 2013-14 proposed budget reduces 2.9 positions and reapportions 5.7 positions in the district, Hernandez noted.

“We are eliminating a team at the intermediate school because of enrollment. We are in a unique position to take those dollars and reallocate them to those things we need which are mandated or coming down the pike,” Hernandez told The Sound, noting, “…we actually reduced staff and overall headcount. We are cutting three positions.”

The proposed budget also adds a math specialist (following a successful model implemented at Walsh Intermediate School) and two new administrative positions: an assistant superintendent and a curriculum coordinator.

The proposed budget builds in district support for professional development, implementation and incorporation of the new Common Core State Standards, mandated across the grade levels. It also maintains newly-introduced foreign languages at the elementary school level and other innovative programs such as the district’s comprehensive high school model. The budget supports the growth of the district’s early-learning strategies by increasing its pre-kindergarten program from 45 seats this year to 75 seats next year.

An area of the budget which Hernandez is concerned could be the focus of RTM cuts: hiring requests for an assistant superintendent and curriculum coordinator; both of which are being put in place to support needs brought on the Common Core mandate. Hernandez said it’s important to note that such positions have a “reduction in force” caveat built-in.

“Say we hire a curriculum coordinator – if things change, we can have a reduction in force if needed. We can reduce that position if needed. Perhaps there needs to be further explanation of that,” he said.

Hernandez is now in his third year of assisting the BOE with crafting a school district budget for the town. In a letter sent to school parents on April 11, Hernandez said this budget, similar to those of the past two years, has been “carefully and strategically” developed, taking into consideration “….both short term and long term systemic improvements, new mandates, staffing levels, the District’s operational obligations and the overall sustainability of programs.”

Even at its originally-proposed annual increase of 2.62 percent, the proposed 2013-14 BOE budget came in with one of its lowest percentage increase requests in recent years. As it stands now, it is one of the lowest school budget increase requests among area districts. Guilford recently voted to approve a 2.98 increase to its 2013-14 school budget and North Branford is been considering a 2.66 percent annual increase.

 “Our increases are incredibly low compared to other towns,” Hernandez told The Sound. “We’ve been managing our contracts carefully and we make staff adjustments when needed. We do a lot of things that are fiscally responsible,” including not opening the teacher’s contract during budget cuts two years ago, he noted. “We should be proud of this school system.”

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