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Groton - Joking that he had accidentally sent his presentation to his former colleagues on the Ledyard Board of Education, new Superintendent Michael Graner embarked on his first budget season in the district Thursday night to mixed reviews.
During a public hearing at the Senior Center, a sparse crowd of a couple dozen heard only a bare-bones preview of next year's spending plan. But several voiced plenty of preemptive opinions on an as-yet nonexistent proposal that fell into two camps: pro- and anti-spending.
Graner did offer several projections. Salary increases will amount to "far less" than contractually anticipated, he said, due to a "fair number" of retirements. On the other side, Graner said he expects the cost of health insurance benefits to increase by 6 percent, though he added that earlier estimates were "worse than that."
And while he promised a "level-service budget" - maintaining class sizes, staff, all-day kindergarten, and both curricular and extracurricular programs - Graner said due to attrition, four of the district's seven elementary schools could see one fewer staff member in each. Depending on the population in a given grade level, some teachers may be moved from one grade to another to replace a retiring teacher.
Staffing plans are not finalized for Cutler and West Side middle schools or Robert E. Fitch High School, he said.
With the memory of this year's cuts still fresh - the Representative Town Meeting eliminated 80 positions throughout the district last spring - Beth Horler, president of the Groton Education Association and a kindergarten teacher at S. B. Butler Elementary School, asked Graner to stick to his promise of level service, not a level budget.
Horler noted that cuts from years past eliminated not only personnel and programs - leading to a "steady increase" in class sizes, she said - but crucial classroom supplies.
"Please use a scalpel, not a hammer," she said.
Parent Mary Ann Little said that her daughter is not only suffering from a crayon shortage - she doesn't have a guidance counselor, either.
"It doesn't make sense to me to eviscerate the rest of the budget that affects our students, how they learn, the environment they're in," she said.
But Scott Aument and Rosanne Kotowski, both members of the political action group Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency, made equally fervent pleas to curtail expenditures and criticized Graner for holding a public hearing without a budget to offer.
Aument called the education budget "bloated" and capital improvement projects "unnecessary." Kotowski said holding a public hearing on a budget that has not yet been made public is "not transparent," adding that a higher tax rate that may result from a budget increase is "not sustainable."
"The conversation should be focused on what we can afford, not the status quo," she said.
Graner said he expects to have a budget plan by the end of next week, which must be finalized by Feb. 28.