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Ledyard - The Board of Education's Finance Committee proposed a budget with a 4.87 increase at a special meeting Wednesday night, requesting an additional $1.4 million for the district next year.
This would be the biggest increase in the school budget in at least five years, said Finance Committee Chairman Gordon Strickland. With the exception of a 3.48 percent increase in 2012, the board has not seen more than a 2.5 percent increase in the past five years - the minimum to run the district without any program cuts.
In years past, Strickland said, the board was able to take some built-in measures to keep operations afloat, including freezing 15 percent of the schools' discretionary accounts - an amount that, until now, the board has been able to give back by the end of the academic year.
"We really thought we were going to be OK," he said. "Because in the past we've been OK."
But before the school year even began, Strickland said the Finance Committee realized this strategy would not be enough. The state cut its reimbursement for special education by 5 percent, magnet school tuition increased by $85,000, and the board was facing an additional $70,000 in unexpected costs, among them software upgrades.
The committee increased the discretionary spending freeze to 25 percent in August, but remained optimistic.
But by December, a bump in utility costs due to the cold, maintenance issues, substitute teacher costs and the federal government shutdown left the board facing a $112,000 deficit.
The board froze all discretionary spending. And in its last meeting of 2013, members voted to reduce the hours of the district's paraprofessionals. Along with hours reductions for some academic coaches, tutors and specialists, Strickland said the board saved about $96,000.
The reduction in paraprofessional hours starts Monday - a move that evoked outrage at a meeting earlier this month by the affected staff and their supporters, though Strickland suggested that cuts were already on their way. With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, board members already knew the mandate that requires health coverage for anyone working 30 or more hours a week wasn't feasible.
With some additional appropriations from the Town Council, Strickland said the board should be out of the red - albeit narrowly - by the end of the academic year.
The proposed increase of $1,446,692 could be knocked down to about $913,000 thanks to state funding and some teacher turnover, making the final request a 3.07 percent increase.