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East Lyme schools' chief pitches 4.59% increase in education spending

East Lyme — The Board of Education is evaluating Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton's proposed $54.61 million budget for 2022-23, which comes in at a 4.59% increase and includes the cost of absorbing some staffing positions initially added using federal pandemic relief dollars.

Newton's proposal is $2.40 million higher than the current budget. The increase includes $1.16 million for salaries alone, where contractual and minimum-wage increases combine with additional positions to drive the cost.

The district used federal American Rescue Plan, or ARP, funds in the current budget to add about 14 positions — ranging from math coaches to elementary school teachers to psychologists — at a cost of $1.36 million. Newton said by phone Wednesday that eight of those positions are preserved in his proposal thanks to $840,495 in remaining federal funds.

Three of the 14 — an elementary math coach, a middle school social worker and a part-time school psychologist position — are proposed to be covered in the operating budget. The salary total for those positions came to $178,575 in Newton's presentation, not including benefits.

The budget also includes a new special education position that likely would be divided between Niantic Center and Lillie B. Haynes elementary schools, a teacher for the increasing number of students who come to the district learning English, a health aide to address continuing pandemic-related issues at Lillie B. Haynes and another middle school nurse.

To help mitigate the increase, the proposed budget takes away three teaching positions at the middle school by dissolving one of the five teams — known as "kivas" — into which students in grades seven and eight are divided. Newton has said even with fewer teachers, class sizes will remain within the district's target of no more than 24 kids each.

"If we dissolve a kiva and look at it as a fiscally responsible thing to do, the class sizes sit right in the range of 21-23 (students)," he told school board members during his Jan. 10 budget presentation.

Newton's budget also targets one-and-a-half teaching positions at the high school for the chopping block. He said the district is still determining which positions can be cut with the "least impact."

Newton, in his initial presentation and again at a school board meeting this week, pointed to four major factors in the increase: salaries, benefits, contracted services and utilities. Included in the contractual services, which comprise 13.57% of the budget increase, is a portion of the technology contract that's covered by ARP money in the current budget.

The $175,000 portion of the technology contract was for a technology position and some software programs, Newton said back in September. Using ARP money for those expenses left money in the operating budget for an outfield reconstruction project on the high school baseball field, which is ongoing.

The main goal of the proposed budget is to help the district recover from the pandemic, according to Newton. That means providing kids with the mental health support they need to function socially and emotionally and keeping class sizes at desired levels so teachers can work closely with students to fix achievement gaps.

His presentation revolved around highlighting the positive results that already have come out of the positions funded through the ARP that will now have to be accounted for in the budget.

Director of Student Services Kimberly Davis said the effects of the pandemic are evident at the middle school in an increase in physicality between students, more kids being screened as at risk for suicide and more referrals to the state Department of Children and Families.

"And they're just seeing in general that students' social skills are not as developed as they were pre-pandemic. Whether that's from isolation or lack of practice or extracurricular activities, I think the research is still developing about that," she said.

Davis told school board members the addition of a middle school social worker to the existing full-time social worker in that building helped address the increased need for mental health services. Having two full-time social workers allows them to provide regularly scheduled counseling sessions for 30 or more students each, while also addressing crisis situations as they arise.

Assistant Superintendent Annaliese Spaziano presented slides with student achievement data to back up what she said about elementary students being more proficient in math due to a new math coach, and better prepared for the middle school technology curriculum thanks to three new technology teachers.

School board member Bill Derry, during discussion after the presentation, described the proposal as different from past years. He said the level of detail about things like student achievement might seem unusual to officials used to looking at dollars and cents.

"We have a big number that we're asking for and we've got a lot of initiatives we feel are worthwhile that we want to keep and we're trying to show data to justify it," he acknowledged. But he said it might help to explain to selectmen and the finance board why the district is presenting the information the way it is.

"A lot of things are at risk if we can't get what we're requesting," Derry said.

A public hearing on the education budget will be held on Feb. 28, followed by a school board meeting that will include discussion and a possible vote on the education spending plan.


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