Voters approve Lyme-Old Lyme school budget

Lyme and Old Lyme residents approved the proposed $35 million education budget at referendum Tuesday in what turned out to be a higher-than-usual voter turnout, Superintendent Ian Neviaser said.

With nearly 900 votes cast between the two towns, Tuesday’s large turnout comes after months of pushback and voiced concerns from a handful residents who opposed the universal preschool program proposed in the budget.

Of the 684 votes cast in Old Lyme, 288 were against the proposed budget, while in Lyme, just 34 of the total 196 votes cast were opposed.

“This budget certainly had a lot of discussion about what was proposed in it this year, so I think that brought a lot of people out,” Neviaser said Wednesday, explaining that Tuesday’s turnout was the highest the district has seen since 2011.

“It’s always a concern that we aren’t getting a large enough sample size in the community,” he said. “But (this vote) speaks to the fact that people are getting more involved. Yes, we saw the largest no vote since 2011, but we also saw the highest yes vote for the budget, as well.”

Reflecting a 2.29 percent, or $786,230, increase over this year’s education spending plan, the new budget includes the proposal to expand the district’s preschool program to all resident 4-year-olds. With a one-time expense of $87,437 for Center School classroom renovations to accommodate the preschool program, the district also will need to hire two certified preschool teachers, as well as four teaching aides, at an additional cost of nearly $208,000.

The budget also includes $225,000 to replace three of the nine high school tennis courts, as well as $57,000 for carpeting and design renovations at Lyme Consolidated School and the middle school, among standard increases in employee benefits and salary costs.

Because of enrollment shifts reflected between the two towns this academic year, Old Lyme will be required to pay $1.2 million more than it did this year toward the education budget.

In an effort to offset those costs, however, the Old Lyme finance board opted to pull $800,000 from its $8 million reserve fund to help keep the tax rate increase low, proposing a 22.41 mill rate, or a 0.5 mill increase, to its taxpayers next year.

On the flip side, Lyme residents will pay just 19.3 percent of the overall school budget — $169,099 less than this year — allowing its finance board to propose a total town budget in April with a zero-percent increase over the current year's spending plan.

First approving its $35 million budget in February, the education board since has found an additional $335,664 in savings from retirement and insurance next year, as well as an extra $90,000 to be saved in preschool building renovation costs after bids came in lower than expected.

Those savings, which were announced in April, allowed the education board to approve changes to its proposed budget, adding an additional kindergarten section at Mile Creek School, as well as additional physical education classes at the school. One music teacher’s full-time position also will be preserved at the school after her position was proposed to be reduced to part-time earlier in the budget season.

As part of the proposed preschool program, the district plans to add two additional classrooms to the two already used for 4-year-olds, with the potential to add another should there be enough out-of-town enrollment in the program. Parents of out-of-town students would pay $10,000 a year for the program.

Presently, the district's preschool program comprises of three preschool classes, two of which are for 4-year-olds. The 4-year-old program runs full-day classes, while the 3-year-old program runs two half-day classes out of the same classroom. Both are presently run four days a week.

Half of those classes contain students with special needs and the other half gain entry into the program through a lottery system. Because of that system, the district annually turns away about 37 students, 18 of whom are 4-year-olds, Neviaser has said.

The expanded preschool program will run five full days per week, while the program for 3-year-olds will continue to run as a half-day program, but five days per week.

Having responded to residents' worries — from whether there was a true need for the expansion to how it could impact taxpayers in the future — Neviaser maintained Wednesday that a universal preschool program would benefit the district’s future students in more ways than just preparing them well for kindergarten.

“If you look at any of the research out there on preschool education, it will tell you that the impact it will have on a child’s development is incredible,” he said. “The secondary aspect of this program is what it can do for the community, and the people it will bring into the community.”

When asked how the program may impact the town’s local private preschools, such as the Grasshopper Green Preschool and the Old Lyme Children’s Learning Center, Neviaser said he has sought to collaborate with those two schools to establish before- and after-school preschool programs, as the Lyme-Old Lyme program will run only from 8:50 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Both have expressed interest, Neviaser said, with the Grasshopper Green Preschool in a position to move forward with the idea and the Old Lyme Children’s Learning Center still “waiting to see what happens.”

Neviaser said Wednesday he planned to reach out to the Old Lyme Children’s Learning Center on Thursday to further discuss the option of including 4-year-olds in their before- and after-school programs, which currently are housed in the Center School’s cafeteria and classrooms.

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects how many preschool classrooms are used for 3- and 4-year-olds.

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