East Lyme Board of Education approves budget with 4.98% increase

East Lyme — The Board of Education unanimously approved a $51.7 million budget for fiscal year 2020-21 Monday night after listening to several residents' opinions about proposed additional staffing and information technology upgrades.

The approved budget is 4.98%, or about $2.7 million, higher than this year’s $49 million spending plan and covers fixed costs, including salaries and benefits, which make up more than 96% of the overall budget, as well as the additional hiring of several new teachers and staff, and what Superintendent Jeffrey Newton described as necessary advancements in information technology infrastructure and equipment.

Newton said Tuesday by phone the school district has been proposing what he described as “bare-bones budgets” over the last eight years, with 2.48% increase on average over that period.

“We’ve had basically stagnant budgets,” he said. “That does not allow us to move forward. All that is doing is keeping our budget status quo, and that’s barely status quo, to be honest.”

This year’s proposed hike represents a decision to invest in students’ education and keep the district ahead of the curve, Newton said, explaining that now is the right time “to catch up” and “start moving forward” after putting off needs over the last several years.

“We are going to start falling behind compared to other districts,” he said. “We already are behind in technology, so we will start falling behind in other areas, too, if we don’t start working to move ourselves forward. This is the year the Board of (Education) supports doing that. We are always striving to be the best district that we can be.”

In a previous iteration of the proposed budget, Newton proposed a 5.57% increase over this year’s spending plan. But after finding out more precise health insurance costs last week, he said Monday the district now will save approximately $288,000 from what it originally had budgeted for those costs, bringing the total proposed budget down to a 4.98% increase, which the board unanimously approved Monday night.

Newton also explained that savings found through a new natural gas contract, as well as teacher retirements, helped balance the proposed budget, but because the district “gambled last year and lost” when it came to budgeting the appropriate number of kindergarten teachers and support staff needed for the 2019-20 year, it now needs to add about $318,000 for the new hires in the budget for 2020-21.

For this upcoming year, Newton said the district is planning to hire two new kindergarten and two new first grade teachers after seeing an increase in kindergarten students this year. One other elementary teacher is proposed, as well as one high school social worker, one districtwide behavior analyst, a part-time global language teacher, one instructional technology manager and two math coaches.

The district also is planning to spend about $1 million for information technology advancements over the next five years — with plans to purchase laptops and iPads, as well as update the middle and high schools' wireless internet infrastructure — in an effort to modernize the schools and classroom instruction methods.

The district is planning to pay those costs through a five-year financing plan at about $200,000 each year, the first payment of which has been included in the 2020-21 spending plan.

During the public comment section of Monday’s meeting, many residents expressed support for the budget, iterating a need for the district to stay ahead and backing plans to hire additional special education support staff and global language teachers, exposing children to new languages throughout younger grade levels K through 4.

Resident Kyle Douton said instead of focusing on cloud-based learning, a bigger focus is needed on teaching students life skills that could be applied in today’s job market, such as balancing a budget, using QuickBooks or navigating Adobe Creative Suite.

“As an employer, the students we are producing at the high school level I don’t feel are necessarily ready for the work force,” Douton said. “I think the amount of money you’re going to invest into some of the technology you’re talking about is a little bit of a problem. Yes, we need new network switches and we need good Wi-Fi in the building. Do we need cloud-based learning where the kids have access to mobile computers all the time? No. I don’t think this will have that much benefit.”

Resident Mike Schulz cautioned board members to remember that other residents who don’t have children in the district may be facing rising medical insurance and prescription costs, as is his reality, and proposed a wage and salary freeze to help balance costs.

Newton said by phone Tuesday, “I want to be clear that this is not the new norm either of us coming in at 5% increases in future years. This is the year that we feel we need to catch ourselves back up and get us back on track with incremental increases that are reflective of our needs. We built these budgets from the ground up. It’s needs versus wants.”

The board will present its budget March 4 to the Board of Selectmen, which could suggest changes, and then on April 2 to the Board of Finance, which could change the proposed amount, before the town and education budgets are combined and sent to a town vote in late May.

m.biekert@theday.com

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