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Ledyard - The Board of Education's Finance Committee recommended Wednesday trimming staff, eliminating the high school newspaper and dropping some sports programs in order to make up some $495,000 in cuts to the school budget.
The Town Council's directive to reduce the 2014-15 school budget came two days after the budget public hearing filled the Ledyard High School auditorium with dozens of concerned residents, many of whom said they simply could not afford an 8 percent tax hike. Others expressed fears that the school budget - which Board of Education members say has been underfunded for years - would take a heavy hit if it did not pass as proposed.
The $495,000 reduction - along with the $123,000 councilors told Mayor John Rodolico to cut from the general government budget - will reduce the tax rate hike in a final budget proposal of $52.7 million to 1.75 mills, or 6 percent.
The remaining increase in the proposed school budget is $535,898, or a 1.8 percent increase. The school budget proposal as pushed forward originally by the council included a 3.2 percent increase for a $30.7 million budget.
At Wednesday's special meeting of the board's Finance Committee, Chairman Gordon Strickland said the committee looked at enrollment, participation rates in and relative expenses of extracurricular activities, and sought to cut back in places that would have little impact on academics.
Pool and greens fees put boys' swimming and golf at the top of that list. The high school newspaper is too expensive to print, he said, and the freshman boys' soccer program is very small. Together, these cuts amount to a savings of $36,389.
"Our challenge was trying to figure out reductions that were least injurious to the educational program at Ledyard," he said.
Staff cuts include literacy and math tutors and two paraprofessionals at Ledyard Middle School, along with a part-time secretary at Ledyard High School and a part-time social studies teacher at the middle school, all of which amount to $239,502 in savings.
An additional $14,250 in savings will come from health insurance reimbursement for these positions and for three unexpected retirements, which will save $75,000.
The last of the cuts will come from eliminating a magnet school bus and six in-town bus runs - a savings of $74,000 - and $22,000 from various supply accounts. An additional $5,539 in savings will come from delaying a technology purchase.
Wednesday's meeting drew a small crowd, though Superintendent Cathy Patterson said she expects the regular Board of Education meeting next Wednesday to bring in much more public feedback.
Among the handful who spoke Wednesday was Janis Vajdos, who has three children - a kindergartener, a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader - enrolled in the school district. Vajdos said she has decided to enroll them all at magnet and charter schools in New London next fall instead.
Vajdos said there already are few opportunities for above-grade-level students. She would like to bring her children back to the district for high school, she said, but cuts affecting enrichment programs would leave her no choice.
"I understand you have a difficult task tonight," she told the committee. "I ask … that you remember the college-bound students."
And Leslie Rowland, editor-in-chief of Ledyard High School's student newspaper, The Colonel, protested the board's suggestion that the paper switch to a digital format.
"I don't have any sympathy for the notion that The Colonel could survive solely online," Rowland said, adding that an online petition asking for the paper to stay in print that had garnered 200 signatures by Wednesday night.
"It gets the student body involved," Rowland said of the paper. "It wouldn't just be The Colonel staff that's affected."
These cuts are not the first sign of fiscal trouble for the district. In December, facing a deficit of more than $100,000, the school board voted to reduce the hours of more than 100 paraprofessionals, sparking outrage from the community.
But bigger issues lie ahead if the budget fails at referendum and the remaining increase is put at risk, Strickland said. Ledyard Middle School teachers, districtwide music program staff, and the district's social worker position - created for this year's budget to replace a district psychologist and save about $30,000 - could all be eliminated. The district's busing system would shift to a three-tiered system, meaning kindergarteners could be sharing buses with middle-school students.
"It gets tough," Strickland said. "It was tough getting to this part."