Stonington board to weigh school funds

Stonington - Four days after hundreds of people packed a public hearing and urged the Board of Finance to restore the $525,000 it has cut from the proposed 2014-15 school budget, the board will meet tonight to decide whether to make that change.

Although it is school vacation week, a large crowd is again expected when the board meets at 7 p.m. at the high school to finalize a budget to send to a referendum vote. No public comment section is listed on the agenda.

At Thursday's hearing, which lasted several hours, speaker after speaker called on the board to restore the funding, saying failing to do so would not only hurt the education of students but damage property values, economic development and the town's reputation of having quality schools. The crowd loudly cheered and applauded each speaker. As of Sunday night, a total of 1,352 people have signed a petition calling on the board to restore the money.

Only one speaker at last week's hearing, Dave Brown of Pawcatuck, supported the cuts to the school budget's initial proposal for a $1 million increase.

He said many residents are struggling to pay taxes and mortgages. Referring to statistics that show that while the town is the 45th wealthiest community in the state it has the 155th lowest tax rate and is 114th in state per-pupil spending, Brown said it isn't always how much money that is spent that determines success.

"You can't always have what you want," he said to a smattering of applause.

The currently proposed $58.2 million town and school budget and its 0.5 percent increase calls for a 0.49-mill tax increase, the largest hike in six years.

If the board restores the $525,000 to the school budget, it would increase the proposed tax rate by 0.69 mills. For a resident who owns a house assessed at $250,000, that would add $50 to their tax bill.

Adding back the $1 million cut in school capital items, many of which were for school security, would boost the tax rate by 1.09 mills.

The proposed $34 million school budget is now $337,000 more than the current budget, but school officials say it will take $1 million to provide the current level of education because of increases in staff salaries and health insurance, fuel, utilities, special education tuition and other costs.

To reduce the budget by $525,000, Superintendent 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 that would be eliminated. A host of sports and extracurricular activities would be cut along with music programs, textbooks and materials.

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.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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