East Lyme school board looks to reinstate $1.1 million in recommended budget cuts
East Lyme ― Concerns about the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students have resulted in an apparent consensus among Board of Education members to add more than a million dollars to the proposed $57.9 million budget for 2023-24.
Monday’s Board of Education meeting drew more than 130 people decrying the reduction of 18.5 staff positions proposed by Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton last month to mitigate the forces of inflation and rising health insurance costs.
Newton’s recommendation represents an increase of $3.77 million, or 6.97%, over the current budget. Reinstating the positions, amounting to $1.1 million, would bring the increase to 8.88% over the current budget without other cuts to make up the difference.
During an hour-long public comment period, parent Amy Farrior introduced herself as the mother of two elementary school students and a kindergarten teacher in another district. One of her children is in third grade.
“This is his first normal year of school, ever,” she said.
Newton’s recommended cuts hit hard in the lower grades, with four elementary teaching positions and three elementary technology education positions on the chopping block. They were funded for the past two budget years through federal pandemic-relief funds.
Farrior said the cuts, and the resulting larger class sizes, threaten the strides students have made socially and in rebuilding skills they need to thrive in the 21st century, like critical thinking, communication and digital literacy.
“Why take back the progress we made and put these students – who’ve only had one normal school year, ever – in this situation?” she said. “Who are we really hurting? We’re hurting the students. Haven’t they lost enough?”
She spoke in front of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents and students in the 40-person board meeting room as well as an overflow site set up with a video feed in the auditorium. About 30 people participated remotely on Zoom.
Many in the crowd wore red to represent the teachers’ union or green to represent secretaries and paraprofessionals. Public comment centered on the learning losses and emotional upheaval experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other proposed cuts by Newton include roughly two positions in the high school-level career exploration program known as Coastal Connections, five paraeducators, roughly four library assistant positions, one district-wide instructional technology coach and $50,000 in part-time custodial labor.
Andrea Montovani, an assistant principal in another district and a parent of two children in East Lyme, said her second grader has already missed out on foundational skills for two years.
She characterized spending on teachers and aides as a now-or-later issue.
“We’re going to eventually have to spend the money, because if student gaps are not closed, there’s going to be students with more special education identification and guess what? Legally we’re going to then have to provide the services,” she said.
Education and general government sections of the proposed budget must be approved by the school board and Board of Selectmen, respectively. Then the spending plan goes to the Board of Finance for adjustment before the public gets the chance to vote at a budget referendum in May.
Attempts by school board members to examine line items contained in almost a dozen areas ranging from salaries to supplies yielded few ideas for other reductions. They expressed no appetite for cuts that would directly affect students and teachers, including the elimination of freshman sports at the high school or charging community organizations for using district facilities.
Republican-turned-unaffiliated school board member Candice Carlson said she can’t get behind the staffing cuts proposed by Newton.
But she described the “top heavy” administration as another matter.
“Because some of those positions could go,” she said. “And I’ve heard that resonate here in the community from folks in regard to administration.”
The district’s proposed 17.5 administrators – including a request to increase the athletic director position from part- to full-time – are spread out across three elementary schools, one middle and one high school, as well as specialized programs.
Carlson also asked for more details on the maintenance projects amounting to $139,377 in the superintendent's proposal for needs like a roofing study for Lillie B. Haynes School, carpeting replacements and a vehicle shed.
School board member Bill Derry, a Democrat, said he was ready to make a motion to reinstate the 18.5 positions Monday night. But Republican Chairman Eric Bauman said the process does not call for a vote until after a public hearing on Feb. 27.
The health insurance question
The school board hopes to find savings by budgeting for lower health insurance costs than Newton anticipated when he drafted his recommendations. He said the district has since been advised to plan for an 8 to 10% increase over current costs as part of the town’s participation in a state health insurance pool.
Budgeting for a 10% increase instead of 12% would save $140,000, according to officials. But school board members expressed caution about taking less than a conservative approach.
The district was advised during last year’s budget planning session of an anticipated 5 to 8% increase for 2022-23, according to Newton. Officials decided to focus on the low end because there had been only a 1.25% increase the previous year.
The increase came in at more than twice the district’s estimates. The unexpected health insurance numbers combined with increases in special education and electricity costs to drive a $677,000 deficit, which has been reduced through cost cutting measures to $286,127 currently.