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Hearing outlines 3% increase proposed in Groton education budget

Groton — A small group of residents, speaking Tuesday evening during a public hearing on the proposed education budget, called for additional resources for students’ social-emotional well-being and increased pay for paraprofessionals, among other priorities.

Superintendent Susan Austin and Board of Education Chair Kim Shepardson Watson presented the superintendent’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget of $79.7 million, which is about $2.3 million, or 3%, more than this year’s budget, during a virtual hearing Tuesday evening.

Shepardson Watson highlighted program elements, including maintaining effective class sizes and curricular and extracurricular programs; supporting the International Baccalaureate campus at Fitch High School and Groton Middle School and the magnet themes at the district’s five elementary schools; developing a new opportunity for Fitch students to learn a trade after school at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School; partnering with the town to fund a school resource officer at Fitch and the middle school; maintaining the vocational program for 18- to 22-year-olds; and maintaining the Tree House child care program and expanding it to the middle school.

As is typical for school districts, salaries and benefits are the largest part of the budget and comprise 77.6% of next year’s proposed spending, Austin said.

She noted most of the increase in the budget is related to salaries and benefits. The presentation pointed to contractual wage increases, minimum wage increases and anticipated increases in insurance claims costs. The minimum wage increases are starting now, which the district hopes will help fill vacant positions, she said.

Austin said the district also is adding another assistant principal position and another secretarial position for the two new, larger elementary schools that opened this year. Each school had 1.5 assistant principal positions this year but the district decided two positions are needed due to the schools’ number of students, special education programs and early childhood education programs.

The 11-year average in education budget increases for Groton is 0.6%, according to the presentation. Austin said it's not sustainable for Groton to have 0% increases every year. She said Groton tends to have a year or two of 0% increases, or lean budgets, but then it bounces up because of needs or possibly inflation.

Three residents spoke during the public hearing.

Joanna Priest, a Groton parent and longtime educator who teaches in another school district, said she has learned over the course of her career how important students' social-emotional well-being is.

"I think the (coronavirus) pandemic has only compounded all of the mental health crises that we see across the state," she said.

She said she watched the budget presentation and loved all the work in Groton Public Schools and all the STEM grants, but she'd love to see some concerted effort in the social-emotional field, whether through more social workers or board-certified behavior analysts, or whatever the educators feel is needed. She also would like families to be brought into the loop, so they can help with that social upbringing.

Among her comments, parent Ellen Sefransky said she thinks paraprofessionals need to be paid more than the minimum to attract high-quality people and alleviate staffing shortages.

Parent Fenty Lee also agreed with the need for more mental health or social-emotional resources for students during the pandemic, particularly for older students who don't have the same outlets as younger ones who can go to playgrounds. She also suggested the district prepare so it has the technology to be able to continue to provide engaging arts, music and drama education, should there ever be another pandemic.

Lee works for Safe Futures, which assists victims of domestic violence and sexual crimes in the region. She said before the pandemic, the organization used to provide education in Groton schools on domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, and she suggested the board bring that back. She said Safe Futures has been back to Stonington, New London and Norwich, and can help Groton if it needs assistance, such as with grant writing.

Shepardson Watson said the board will take a look at Safe Futures.

A Board of Education, Town Council and Representative Town Meeting Education Committee meeting will be held on Feb. 2 to review the public comments and discuss topics such as revenues and grants that support the budget and per-pupil spending in Groton compared to other districts.

The Board of Education will review the budget proposal and is slated to adopt a budget by the end of February.

k.drelich@theday.com

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