Preston school officials take new approach to budget process

Preston — The school budget process is taking a different path this year, with new Superintendent Roy Seitsinger presenting the Board of Education with various scenarios and priorities and working with the board’s budget and finance committee to review all sections before coming up with a final plan.

The finance committee will meet Thursday to work on the budget, and the full board will hold a special meeting March 5 to adopt a budget to be submitted to the Board of Finance March 6. School board Chairman Sean Nugent, also chairman of the finance committee, said the full board might hold a special meeting before March 5 to review the budget.

The school board has decided on three priorities to include in next year’s proposed budget: a full-time school social worker, an additional elementary school teacher and software for the English literacy curriculum.

With those additions, and all other current programs and staffing retained, the 2018-19 school budget would total $12.1 million, a 3.75 percent, $438,678 increase over this year’s total of $11.7 million, Seitsinger said. The budget includes a 7.2 percent salary increase, a 10.8 percent health insurance jump and a 9 percent increase in high school tuition.

While tuition at Norwich Free Academy will only rise by 1.5 percent next school year, Preston’s enrollment there will increase from 151 to 162 students, causing the total NFA tuition bill to rise by $168,921.

Seitsinger also presented the board with totals for a 2 percent budget increase, cutting about $205,000 from the $12.1 million, and for keeping the current total of $11.7 million. Cutting 2 percent from this year’s total would require a $617,920 cut, the equivalent of 10.7 full-time positions.

Nugent said he “loves” the new budget process, calling it a business approach to the budget and “a more engaging and open dialog” among the finance committee, the full school board and the superintendent. Nugent said the current proposed budget totals are preliminary and subject to change.

Preston’s enrollment is projected to rise slowly and steadily over the next several years. The two schools currently have 451 students in preschool through eighth grade and another 245 high school students.

The additional elementary school teacher was proposed because first and third grade classes next year are expected to be above the goal of 18 to 20 students per class. The new teacher would be placed in the grade with the highest number next year to split the classes, Seitsinger said.

Preston currently has no school social worker, a specialty with a required teaching certificate as well as social work training. Seitsinger initially proposed a part-time position, but the school board supported a full-time position in the budget.

“A school social worker is critical as an integral part of a team — the school psychologist, principal and teacher — to help kids with issues in their lives,” Seitsinger said.

Those issues could include bullying, family emergencies, substance abuse and financial strains. Unlike the school principal or teacher, the social worker could visit the family home and help connect families with other services in the region. At school, the social worker could organize group student discussions.

School and town Finance Director John Spang said he used the state Education Cost Sharing grant of $2.99 million in the two-year approved state budget rather than figures in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed ECS grant of $2.66 million for Preston.

c.bessette@theday.com

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