Preston school board cuts education budget

Preston — The Board of Education on Tuesday approved a series of budget cuts to reach the $215,000 total cut ordered thus far following two referendum budget defeats, including reverting to a fee-based preschool program and eliminating a new social worker position.

But the board rejected an idea to eliminate the late bus for after-school activities, which would have saved $4,320, electing to find that amount of savings by reducing subsidies to the cafeteria budget, for a total cut of $14,320 to the cafeteria subsidies.

The proposed $11.9 million school budget was defeated twice in referendums this summer, and last week the Board of Finance cut an additional $75,000 from the proposed budget, bringing the total proposed cut to $215,000, and bringing the proposed budget to $1,831,804.

The next budget town meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at Preston Veterans Memorial School. The referendum on the school budget will be held Aug. 21.

The school system enacted a controversial universal free preschool program in January 2015, angering residents who had opposed the idea during the previous budget season. The school board at the time used anticipated savings in other areas of the budget to launch the program, and opponents have criticized the plan since then.

Superintendent Roy Seitsinger, who started last year in Preston, said the universal preschool program was the top concern when he spoke to taxpayers about the budget.

In a list of proposed cuts presented to the school board Tuesday, Seitsinger proposed enacting a fee of $75 per week for preschool students, keeping the two preschool classes. The fees would bring in an estimated $66,000.

Board members debated the issue Tuesday, considering a sliding fee scale rather than a flat fee, but board Chairman Sean Nugent said the board needed to decide Tuesday because there is less than a month before school starts Aug. 29. Seitsinger said 31 students have enrolled in preschool thus far but the program had 46 students last year.

“It does feel like a backward step, but we have to listen to the broader community,” Seitsinger said.

Nugent said the board is not backing away from its support for preschool but pledged to study the program and possibly redesign it for the future.

The board also reluctantly agreed to drop the proposed new social worker position, totaling $66,568. Seitsinger proposed the position during budget discussions as a high-priority need for the school system and the board strongly agreed.

“I will tell you as a superintendent, these items (universal preschool and a social worker) will appear again,” Seitsinger told the board.

But he and board members agreed they would not support enacting new programs mid-year, since residents strongly objected to the move in the past.

Seitsinger said newly hired Special Education Director Dr. Carmela Smith has a master’s degree in social work. While she would not be able to serve as the school social worker, Seitsinger said he would consult with her on issues. Nugent said school board members will ask administrators to quantify the need for a social worker throughout the year, documenting the number of students and families in need of such services.

Board member Tom Turner said he only very reluctantly supported cutting the social worker, citing real-world problems that are entering the schools. But he agreed the cut was necessary to try to get a budget passed.

“Things are happening fast,” Turner said. “Whatever happens on the street comes through the (school) doors.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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