New London school board passes $69.9 million budget proposal

New London — The school board passed a revised $69.9 million budget on Monday following another marathon meeting in which board members struggled to balance cuts and additions for a district still recovering from painful reductions in its current budget.

The $69,946,023 proposal is an increase of 4.56 percent over the current budget and will depend in part on a $45.5 million request from the city’s general fund — a 7.2 percent increase over what the city funded last year, said school district Finance Director Rob Funk.

The overall request to the city is partially funded through the state Educational Cost Sharing Grant but still equates to a more than $2.5 million increase in funding from taxpayers.

Jefferey Hart, chairman of the board’s finance committee, said the district had gone without a significant increase in funding for the past several years despite rising enrollment, drops in state funding and increases in fixed costs such as health insurance and salaries.

He said he is ready to defend the request when it reaches the City Council.

“This is not a pie-in-the-sky wish list. It’s a very practical document,” Hart said. “The positions we added are going to directly impact the students.”

The budget, which now moves to the mayor’s desk for consideration, was passed with a 5-2 vote. Board member Jason Catala and board President Mirna Martinez voted against it.

Martinez had earlier in the evening proposed deeper overall cuts and expressed some skepticism about the city funding the budget as presented.

Catala, at the beginning of Monday’s nearly four-hour meeting, had announced his intention to vote against any budget that did not include the elimination of at least one “cabinet level” administrator position. He had at one point called for a vote to eliminate one of two “$100,000 finance” positions.

His requests, however, gained no traction and instead elicited some pushback from other board members, who said an arbitrary cut to an administrator position was likely to lead to disarray and would handicap ongoing work to satisfy requirements connected to the district's transformation into an all-magnet school district. Some agreed higher level positions would be best left alone until a new superintendent is in place.

With the board’s approval, interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy said he planned to impose a salary freeze for administrators earning more than $100,000, a projected savings of $14,101.

The final budget passed Monday contains elimination of numerous paraprofessional, or educational assistant, positions. Tracy, however, predicted no layoffs since most are unfilled or would be left unfilled through attrition.

As an example, C.B. Jennings Dual Language and International Elementary Magnet Principal Jose Ortiz last week explained that seven of the paraprofessionals listed in his budget had gone unfilled this year so the reductions listed in the current budget proposal did not equate to actual layoffs, only the loss of the positions.

Jennings’ budget came under scrutiny since it has yet to fully benefit from state magnet funding. In its first year as a magnet school, Jennings failed to recruit enough kindergarten students to reach the 25 percent threshold that would have triggered $800,000 in additional state magnet funding.

A small portion of the lost funding was offset by a shifting of funds from other schools.

Jennings, which is in candidacy for an International Baccalaureate World School program, attracted 17 out-of-district kindergarten students this year. The remainder of the school’s 568 students are from New London. It is also host to 25 of the more than 50 students from Puerto Rico that have landed in the district after being displaced by a hurricane in September.

The board on Monday added $85,976 for a certified English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher for Jennings, a position already filled and aimed at the new arrivals. The school will open its first grade to out-of-district students in the next school year.

Catala remained unsatisfied with Jennings’ proposed budget.

“I think it’s disgusting,” Catala said. “This school has the highest population of minorities ... the highest number of New London students and they’re taking the biggest cut.”

The final approved budget for Jennings was not immediately available, though the initial proposal from Tracy showed a decrease of more than $129,000 in funding.

The overall budget includes spending plans for four different pathways at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School: leadership, visual and performing arts, STEM and a new international education and dual language pathway being introduced next year with its own administrator.

The board at one point has considered elimination of a teacher in the leadership pathway at the middle school, a pathway for New London residents whose future as a full magnet school is in doubt. The state Department of Education announced recently that the leadership pathway should not be part of the overall plans as the district looks to start its $150 million school construction project.

One of the several added positions that did not make the cut was an assistant principal at New London High School.

g.smith@theday.com

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