Stonington school budget backers plan show of force Thursday

Stonington - School budget supporters are expected to pack the high school auditorium for Thursday night's public hearing on the proposed 2014-15 budget and call on the Board of Finance to restore the $525,000 it cut from the school budget as well as the $1 million it eliminated in school capital improvements, many of which are for school safety.

Mystic Middle School teacher Bruce Yarnall, vice chairman of the newly formed group Stonington Action for Education, said Sunday the group has so far collected signatures from more than 1,100 people calling on the finance board to restore the cuts.

He said he expects the "place to be packed" for the 7 p.m. hearing, as residents are not only upset about the cuts but "the way they are represented on the (finance) board."

Meanwhile in a separate effort, a group of 20 residents have begun collecting the 1,250 signatures needed to force the town to form a charter revision commission that would look at making the biennial finance board elections contested races. Currently, the Democratic and Republican town committees put forth one candidate each for the two six-year terms that come up for election every two years. This means the candidates run unopposed unless there is third party candidate, something that has occurred just once in recent memory.

Finance board Chairman John O'Brien said Sunday he has received 70 calls and emails from both school budget supporters and those who don't want to see their taxes go up.

There has been disagreement among finance board members about whether to finalize the budget to be sent to a referendum vote immediately after Thursday night's hearing or to hold a meeting next week to do so, giving them time to consider what is said at the hearing.

O'Brien said that if the hearing is over quickly, he expects the finance board will make a decision Thursday night. But if the hearing is lengthy, he said he expects to postpone the decision until a special meeting on April 14.

To cut the $525,000, Superintendent of Schools Van Riley has recommended eliminating $268,000 for 5.2 teaching positions in various subjects, with middle school French and high school Mandarin among the programs being eliminated.

There is a $61,000 cut in sports and extracurricular activities including all freshman sports and middle school basketball as well as some funding for crew, lacrosse, sailing and cheerleading. He also recommended $38,000 in other staff cuts and a $40,000 reduction in textbooks and materials. Another $120,000 would be eliminated for additional staff to conduct teacher evaluations mandated by the state. These cuts are in addition to the ones the school board made before presenting its budget proposal to the finance board. Those eliminated eight teaching positions through attrition as well as positions for five paraprofessionals and one computer technician.

The proposed $34 million school budget is $337,000 more than the current budget but school officials say it will take $1 million increase to provide the current level of education because of increases in staff salaries and health insurance, fuel, utilities, special education tuition and other costs. But finance board members have said the cuts were needed to get the budget down to a level that voters will approve, in this case one with a 0.49-mill tax increase, the largest hike in six years.

Over the past few years, the finance board has used money from the town's $11 million undesignated fund balance to offset the tax rate and prevent school budget cuts. O'Brien said there is about $500,000 more in the account than what the town needs to keep on hand for emergencies.

Yarnall said residents are very upset about the cuts and said they will hurt the ability of teachers to do their job. He pointed out statistics that show while Stonington is the 45th wealthiest community out of the state's 169 municipalities, it has the 155th lowest tax rate and is 114th in state per-pupil spending.

"The money is there. The question is will they spend it," Yarnall said about the finance board.

He said school budget supporters would like the finance board to restore the money so voters can decide if they want the additional school spending.

"If the voters say no then they no," he said.

"These cuts are bad for the community, parents, teachers, and administrators, but especially for our children, who will be forced into larger classrooms and will not get the high-quality education and attention they deserve," said parent and SAFE chairwoman Ann Marie Pasquin, in a statement. "Public education will suffer under this proposed budget. Our children deserve better!"

Former school board member Kevin Bornstein, who is among those leading the charter revision effort, said residents are surprised to learn about the nature of the finance board elections, especially since voters are asked to choose one of the two candidates on the ballot.

"It's a non-election election," he said. "It's all legitimate but that doesn't make it right."

Attempts to change the charter to make the finance board election contested have failed in the past.

While the controversy over the school budget may have sparked the charter effort, Bornstein stressed those collecting signatures are not trying to impact the 2014-15 budget but are addressing a "structural issue" with the Board of Finance.

Meanwhile another group of residents has written to the town's two state legislators, state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-18th District, and state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, to ask them to attend Thursday's meeting and to ask them to intervene and ask the finance board to discuss the issue with school officials.

"The Board of Finance has refused to meet with either the Board of Education or our superintendent to discuss the implications of its decision. Parents in Stonington are working as best they can to persuade the BoF to see reason. Will you help us?" wrote resident Jennifer Herbst and 10 others.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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