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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Waterford’s increase in proposed school budget is highest in a decade

    Waterford ― Superintendent of Schools Tom Giard presented a proposed 2023-24 education budget of just north of $55 million to the public earlier this month.

    The proposal is a 5.99% increase compared to last year’s budget and is in stark contrast to the district’s average increase of 1.9% from year to year for the last decade. Giard credited the increase to seven primary factors at his Feb. 2 presentation.

    “This is not a fancy budget,” Giard said at the meeting. “There’s nothing shiny and silver in this budget.”

    Waterford is not alone, as surrounding school districts such as Groton, East Lyme and Stonington have seen hefty budget increases as well.

    In Waterford’s proposed education budget, employee salaries and non-health-care benefits would increase by $1,056,798, or 2.03%. Health insurance followed with a $741,929 price tag. New textbooks for a new state-mandated Pre-K through third grade learning program is budgeted for half a million dollars, though Giard said the school is in the process of applying for a waiver to avoid the costs.

    With rising prices, the school district is expected to pay $369,638 more for heat, energy and fuel for the upcoming year. Transportation and nursing will increase by nearly $300,000. Special education at the high school for the therapeutic day program lost COVID funding, also known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding, and will cost the district $150,000. New air-quality testing legislation rounded out the major drivers with a $64,000 cost.

    In his presentation, Giard explained that 60% of of all line items in the budget either remained the same from the previous year or were reduced in part.

    He said the district is set to receive $160,000 in competitive grants, but it is set to lose $1 million in entitlement grants.

    Giard explained in his presentation that the district already mitigated $1.25 million, or 2%, of the budget by using its remaining $488,000 in COVID relief funds and eliminating positions to save $205,000. Those COVID relief funds will fully fund intervention tutors, the summer school staff and the therapeutic day program at the high school. The funds will partially cover the high school’s psychologist, the tech specialist for grades 6 through 12, the reading intervention teacher at Clark Lane Middle School and the special education supervisor.

    The energy efficiency project implemented last year ― which added LED lights and controls, and refrigeration upgrades, among other things ― is set to save the district $276,000 at the current market rate.

    The district also is set to save $50,000 by reducing some services and $235,000 by reducing requests for staff, supplies, materials and equipment.

    The special education supervisor is a position that Giard defended, adding it to the budget based on the district’s need. He explained that 18% of students require special needs services, the second highest rate in the region, but it is the only district not to have someone in this position.

    The therapeutic day program at the high school is made up of 19 students that totaled 942 therapeutic interactions in the last year, and 59 of these were urgent. 80% of students saw an improvement in GPA, 67% saw a reduction in absences, and there was a 20% decrease in discipline from staff, according to Giard’s presentation.

    “I’ve said it in probably 10 different ways already ― I don’t believe this a time to reduce services to our students,” Giard said.

    The proposal calls for the elimination of 6.5 full-time positions but also calls for 6.5 new full-time positions.

    A talented and gifted instructor, half a position, from the elementary schools will be lost due to reduction in services. Two teacher positions, one math and one science, will be eliminated due to enrollment ― which has slowly declined ― and loss of COVID funds. Loss of COVID funds also account for the losses of a math intervention teacher at the elementary schools, two academic intervention tutors and a speech-language pathologist assistant.

    The new positions include a teacher at Great Neck Elementary and a teacher for English learners ― one of the fastest growing demographics of students ― due to enrollment. Enrollment at Quaker Hill requires an additional special education autism teacher. Another kindergarten teacher will be added as well as a speech-language pathologist. The special services supervisor will be 33% funded by COVID Relief funds and half a position for a elementary math interventionist.

    “This budget will allow us to continue to recover from the pandemic but, more importantly, will allow our students to recover,” Giard said.

    On Thursday, Giard provided an executive summary of the proposal, with more time for the board and public to ask questions.

    One topic of discussion was the $500,000 allotted for the new textbooks under the state mandate.

    Giard explained that because it is a state requirement and the school does not yet have an answer on its waiver, he felt it was his responsibility to include the line item in his proposal.

    While resident Ron Fedor said he had a “sense of outrage” over the lack of autonomy over the curriculum, as districts have to choose from seven different programs designated by the state, Giard explained that it is more of an implementation problem than legislative.

    Giard said that the bill, known as the Right to Read Act and passed in the spring of 2021, was designed to get all students reading at grade level by third grade. The districts allowed teachers to review the various curriculum and provide input.

    Another topic of conversation was the $142,000 budgeted for Chromebook replacement.

    Director of Information Technology Mark Geer explained that, since the district began assigning Chromebooks to every student, they are returned and serviced the same way teacher’s laptops are. The Chromebooks tend to last five years before their software is no longer compatible with the school curriculum, though Geer said that time frame is slowly expanding. The district is in its first year of the program.

    The line item accounts for 400 new Chromebooks and funds for licensing.

    The board will take final action on the budget on Feb. 23 and then turn it over to the town’s finance office on Feb. 27.

    k.arnold@theday.com

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