Published January 28. 2014 4:00AM
Salem - As the Board of Education questioned Superintendent Joseph Onofrio about his 2014-15 budget proposal Monday night, board members were already planning how to explain the increased cost to the town's Board of Finance.
Onofrio's $10.8 million proposal is 4.9 percent more than the current budget. During the school board's last meeting, representatives from the Board of Finance made it clear that the town would not have an increase in revenues and would prefer a school budget with no increase.
Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher told the school board he wanted to see justifications for any increase that may occur.
Although they will not present the budget to the Board of Finance until March and won't approve it themselves until February, school board members were already voicing their support for a budget increase on Monday.
"We've been cutting staff and programs, that's how you're getting a zero percent increase," said Dinis Pimentel, who said Salem School shouldn't have to lose any more resources. "To be pacified by the fact that we were able, with declining enrollment, to decrease our staff to reach an arbitrary number, that's not managing our school as a business."
When school board members realized Monday that the increase in costs for special education placement and services was higher than the budget's overall increase, many of them saw the fact as a critical part of their justification.
"That's what needs to be made crystal clear to the town," said George Jackson, referring to the 213 percent increase in out-of-district special education placements and the 54 percent increase in special education services costs for Salem School.
But not everyone was on board with that message. Chairman Stephen Buck, who previously worked in special education services, said the idea of pointing the finger at a particular program "just curdles my milk."
He suggested that the school board should "in no way highlight special education," instead presenting the uncontrollable costs of East Lyme High School tuition and out-of-district special education placements together without drawing attention to the special education costs in particular.
Several board members vehemently expressed their disagreement with Buck's approach.
"We are not making that program a scapegoat," said Mary Ann Pudimat. "We are trying to educate the town."
The Board of Education also discussed the necessity of having three administrators at Salem School.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we need that level of staffing," said Sam Rindell, who said the town and the public need to understand that this is not an "old-fashioned" administration, but one that must deal with new challenges such as the changes to teacher evaluations.
The school administration will have to devote 1,080 total hours to teacher evaluations during a 10-month period each year, according to numbers presented at Monday's meeting. They also noted that the East Lyme has added an administration position in its 2014-15 budget to deal with the increased workload.
"What these numbers say in reality is that the increased number of administrators that are currently in Salem School in comparison to previous years is absolutely justified based on a new law," said Jackson.