East Lyme school board reinstates middle school basketball program
East Lyme — School officials are busy addressing 2022-23 budget challenges. However, despite being in budget-cutting mode, a moving plea from middle school students and concerned parents prompted the Board of Education to reinstate the boys' and girls' middle school basketball program at the June 20 meeting.
Four parents and five students, many who were still dressed in baseball team uniforms after practice, had presented formal statements during public comment at a regular meeting on June 6 at the East Lyme High School, calling for the school officials to retain the girls’ and boys’ basketball and soccer programs at East Lyme Middle School.
“Sports are not just important for unity and being social, but they can provide very important lessons,” middle school student Syum Khanna said, reading his speech from his cellphone at the podium.
Seventh grader Ryan Deuker pointed out the difference between the middle school experience and other town leagues. He cited the potential for friendships developing across the grades and camaraderie generated among the students when riding together on school buses to and from games.
Another seventh grader, Karch Kaczor, expressed his appreciation for the team-building and school spirit that middle school sports generate. He shared a chart that listed 25 schools in the region that offer a boys and girls basketball program.
At last week’s meeting, also at the high school, members of the Board of Education discussed the pros and cons of reinstating the programs. The school officials ultimately heeded the wishes of the public, although they voted only to support maintaining the girls’ and boys’ basketball teams.
Sadie Eident, a rising seventh grader at East Lyme Middle School, and her parents attended the June 20 Board of Education meeting to follow up on the outcome of public comments from the last meeting.
“They won the championship. They were undefeated last year. So, they ended the season on a high. And then after, they found out it was possibly going to get cut,” Kirsten Eident said after the meeting. Her daughter Sadie Eident, 12, learned of the possibility from Carolyn Asciolla, her health and physical education teacher and girls' basketball coach at East Lyme Middle School.
Sadie Eident, who also participates in East Lyme Parks and Recreation’s basketball and soccer, was the only sixth grader on East Lyme Middle School’s girls’ basketball team for most of the season. She appreciated having social access to the older kids.
“The seventh graders and eighth graders were like role models to me," she said. "I want to be a role model to the future Vikings.”
“You get a whole range of talent to play with, but also different age levels,” her father, Scott Eident, said. He was one of the parents who also spoke up at the June 6 meeting, saying that middle school sports should be a priority for the social and emotional health of the kids. “It’s really a good school community builder. Now you can recognize each other in the hallway. You get that connection. It builds a positive school environment.”
The town-approved education budget is $54.1 million, which reflects an increase of $1.9 million or 3.6% over the 2021-22 budget. The originally proposed budget had been $500,000 higher and the Board of Education also now has to contend with $341,000 in unexpected health premium increases that cropped up, totaling $841,000 in reductions the board needs to make.
Since then, school officials decided not to renew three senior nontenured certified staff members in the 2022-23 school year to accommodate $642,000 in budget cuts. That left a deficit of $198,000 to address. However, due to increased class sizes, both Lillie B. Haynes School and Flanders Elementary Schools each will need a new elementary school teacher, costing another $120,000.
Many of the school board members agreed about the value of the middle school sports program. Member Candace Carlson called the public statements from the children “powerful” and asked her counterparts, “Is there a way to find the money?”
BOE member Alisa Bradley found the comparative middle school analysis presented by the students and parents compelling.
“We got data back and I didn’t realize that East Lyme was an outlier,” Bradley said regarding the sports programs offered by many surrounding districts. “We have to look outside our district, too.”
“I’m in favor of bringing these back, but I’m going to hit the elephant in the room,” board Secretary Jamie Barr Shelburn challenged. “These are both good programs and I think that we should put them back in. It’s just the flip side of my brain wants to know how we are going to afford it when we already have a hole we are struggling to fill.”
Superintendent Jeffrey Newton confirmed at the meeting that the district was down to a $250,000 deficit going into next year. The amount would rise to $275,000 if both programs were reinstated.
BOE member Candace Carlson raised the idea of charging a small fee or perhaps running a fundraiser to help cover the expenses.
Ultimately, at board Chairman Eric Bauman’s proposal, the board reached consensus to not fund the new soccer program, which never received enough registrations, and keep the basketball program, which has had an inconsistent presence in the budget.
“Good discussion and (I) appreciate all the students and parents who came and talked and gave us some insights. We don’t always see everything that’s going on,” Bauman said after the motion to approve and reinstate only the East Lyme Middle School girls' and boys' basketball programs was unanimously carried.
“It’s not ideal (fundraising), but it’s OK if that’s what it takes to get the ball rolling right now,” Kirsten Eident said as she exited the meeting.
Her husband disagreed.
“I don’t think middle school sports should have fees for the kids. You want to keep it accessible for all kids,” he said. “...That’s what education is for; providing those opportunities for kids that might not have it at home.”