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Groton superintendent presents $75.1 million school budget at public hearing

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: theday.com

Published February 20. 2014 10:00PM   Updated February 20. 2014 11:42PM

Groton — After adjusting the numbers, Superintendent Michael Graner on Thursday presented an education budget of nearly $75.1 million, an increase of about $1.4 million over the current fiscal year.

Graner told an audience of about 20 at a public hearing at Robert E. Fitch High School that he tried to strike a balance between what students need and what taxpayers can afford.

“My balance might be different than your balance,” Graner said. “But it seems to me, we all have a common interest.”

Not everyone agreed with his decisions.

“If the voters and taxpayers had the right to vote on this budget in a referendum, it would not pass,” said Rosanne Kotowski, co-founder of the political action committee Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency. She said Groton spends more per student than surrounding towns, teachers are better-paid than their peers and the high school has dozens of classes with few students.

At the same time, she said the town is facing economic losses at Pfizer and Electric Boat and families can’t afford to pay more.

“I can’t go to the money tree in my backyard,” she said.

But Beth Horler, president of the Groton Education Association, which represents about 450 teachers, urged the school board to support Graner’s proposed budget. The board must present a budget to the town by Feb. 28.

“This budget allows us to do our jobs,” Horler said, adding, “You wouldn’t ask a surgeon to do surgery with a plastic knife.”

Graner’s spending plan calls for staffing cuts but no layoffs. Two curriculum administrators in the central office would be transferred to other lower-paying administrative jobs such as principals, and two elementary school teachers, a middle school guidance counselor and a high school science teacher who are retiring would not be replaced. The school district offered an early incentive retirement and received two more retirements Thursday, Graner said.

Yet Graner said the budget would continue all programs.

“It’s a level service budget,” he said. “We’re going to maintain class size, there will be no staff reductions. All the curriculum and extra curricular programs — strings, sports, whatever we have — will continue ...”

The main driver of the budget increase is $1.7 million needed for the health insurance fund. Graner said the district had relied on a reserve from the fund that accumulated when health costs were less than expected. But over time, the reserve was spent, and now, it is no longer available.

Scott Aument, chairman of Groton Advocates for Tax Efficiency, said the budget proposal could be reduced given the economic climate.

“If your family’s income were lower for whatever reason, how would you deal with it?” he asked.

But Larry Croxton, vice president of the teachers union, said the board should present the best educational spending plan it can afford. He said cutting funding for schools would not improve economics.

“You’re not going to get more people to come to Groton to pay taxes by cutting the education budget over and over again,” he said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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