$550,000 cut to proposed East Lyme school budget stands

East Lyme - A $550,000 cut to the proposed 2014-15 education budget will remain in place, even after several parents spoke against the cut at a public hearing Monday that was attended by more than 75 residents.

After the hearing, the Board of Finance twice voted 3-3 to defeat two motions to restore $200,000 or $150,000 to the $42,792,767 education budget, which is 2 percent more than the current budget. With the board also trimming some town spending, the budget now stands at $65,113,598, a slightly more than 3 percent increase.

At the hearing, about a dozen residents favored restoring the $550,000 to the education budget and raised concerns on how the district would maintain its tradition of excellence with less money and cuts to afterschool activities.

Resident John Arnold said East Lyme schools spend less per pupil than neighboring districts. While he said the district has been doing remarkably well with the funds, that has come at a cost of maintaining its buildings. He said he understood how challenging the economy is, but pointed to the school system as a driver for real estate values and economic development:

"The reason why most people move to East Lyme is for the schools," he said.

Superintendent of Schools James Lombardo received a round of applause when he asked the board of finance to reinstate the $550,000.

"We have run out of places to save money in order to not cut programs," he said.

But several other residents wanted to reduce the overall budgetary increase. Karen Rak said the town has had budget increases since the recession of 2008. While the budget this year is more than a 3 percent increase, people haven't had a corresponding increase in wages, she said.

"I just don't feel I could push an increase onto my neighbor," she said.

In deliberations, board of finance members discussed the need to strike a balance for its constituents. Board of Finance Chairman Steve Kelley also called this budget cycle the "toughest year."

At a Board of Education meeting Monday before the hearing, residents filled two rooms to hear discussions about potential cuts. Lombardo presented potential reductions that would cut 4.5 teaching positions by eliminating two high school teachers, one teacher from Flanders Elementary School, one from Lillie B. Haynes and a half position for middle school activities. The proposal would further reduce $47,000 in high school activities, $29,000 for middle school athletics, $37,000 in technology resources, $50,000 in instructional resources per pupil and about $40,000 in maintenance projects. It would also eliminate a proposed technology consultant.

Lombardo said administrators had explored two alternatives to the cuts but did not feel those ideas were ultimately appropriate. The two options were closing Niantic Center School to save about $500,000 or removing several positions to support the new teacher evaluation systems that would cost $300,000.

Many parents have expressed concerns about the idea of closing Niantic Center School next year as the district decides what to do with its aging elementary schools. The Board of Education will continue to discuss the cuts next Monday at 7 p.m.

k.drelich@theday.com

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