Montville schools could face steep cuts

The sign in front of Montville High School sign is pictured in May 2017. The district learned in February 2018 that it may get significantly less money from the state than it was anticipating.  (Martha Shanahan/The Day)
The sign in front of Montville High School sign is pictured in May 2017. The district learned in February 2018 that it may get significantly less money from the state than it was anticipating. (Martha Shanahan/The Day)

Montville — Superintendent Brian Levesque had one message for audience members at Montville High School on Tuesday: reach out to state representatives and demand more funding for the district.

With state funding for the 2018-19 fiscal year expected to tally no more than $10.9 million — about $1.7 million less than originally appropriated by the state — Levesque said the Board of Education could face grueling decisions in the coming months, including up to two-dozen teacher layoffs and the potential closure of an elementary school.

"Call state legislators daily. Email them. Be a pest," Levesque told the crowd. "There's not any cut on here that I want to make. This is a financial crisis (at the state level), not an educational crisis. But we're going to bear the brunt of it."

Instead of asking board members to approve and send a relatively optimistic spending plan to the Town Council, Levesque presented the school board with three budget options: $38.4 million, about what he proposed for 2017-18; $37.6 million, the amount the Town Council eventually approved last year; and $36.6 million, the same budget figure that state cuts in the middle of the 2017-18 school year forced Levesque and administrators to achieve.

Considering the unlikely prospect of the Town Council backing substantial tax hikes that would offset the lower-than-anticipated state aid, Levesque said he felt it was prudent to present officials with the full picture, including potentially "drastic changes."

In the lowest budget scenario, Levesque offered options such as outsourcing transportation, a move that could save more than $1 million in operating and capital expenses over the next four years.

The district could save $252,000 by shifting to half-day kindergarten classes and up to $1.1 million by closing an elementary school, Levesque said. Officials haven't reviewed which school would close in such a scenario, but they said it was unlikely to be Oakdale Elementary School because of its integrated pre-K program.

Levesque, who was adamant he did not support such cuts, nonetheless said the board may be forced to consider them due to state budget constraints. He noted that based on enrollment projections across the district, class sizes would still be manageable and within Board of Education guidelines of no more than 25 students per class.

Up to 25 teachers and several administrators throughout the district, including some tenured teachers, could face layoffs based on the lowest budget proposal.

The middle-tier $37.6 million proposal calls for increases to class size at Montville High School; a handful of teacher layoffs, including language teachers; switching Leonard J. Tyl Middle School to block scheduling; eliminating the middle school librarian; eliminating the enrichment program that services middle school students; and changing the athletic director to part time.

That proposal also calls for the same early-retirement incentive plan that saved the district more than $200,000 last year, and an idea that's been tossed around but previously rejected: $100 annual fees for students to participate in sports or clubs, a move that would save about $40,000.

The costliest budget proposal of $38.4 million calls for contractual raises, one elementary teacher reduction based on class size projections and reductions in equipment and supplies.

Board member Sandra Berardy said the idea of "hacking away doesn't sit right with me."

"It's hard to say 'slash this' and 'slash that,'" she said. "It does impact kids. We're successful because classes are small."

Levesque said he understood the concerns and noted that Montville has succeeded in several areas despite facing a series of tough cuts over the last few years, including elimination of several programs and sports, and reductions in field trips and professional development.

High school graduation rates are up from 86.7 percent to 94.6 percent over the last five years, test scores have improved and schools like Oakdale Elementary have received top state and national honors.

"I'm proud of the district the way we're running," said school board Chairman Bob Mitchell, noting it was now up to the board to fully review every option and potential outcome in the coming weeks.

The board will meet again to discuss the budget on Wednesday, Feb. 21. The Town Council will review the school budget beginning in March.

b.kail@theday.com

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