New London schools request 5.9% budget increase amid diminishing grant funds
New London ― The 2023-2024 budget proposal for the city’s public school district shows a continuation of programs developed with pandemic-related funds, staffing shortages, and an increase of energy costs.
The $47.9 million proposed budget requests a $2.7 million increase, or 5.95% more than the current budget.
Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie introduced the budget Monday night at a meeting with the Board of Education. No members of the public commented at a budget public hearing Wednesday.
The board will consider approval of the budget at a Feb. 27 meeting. The final proposed budget will be sent to Mayor Michael Passero on March 15.
Passero on Thursday said a preliminary analysis of the proposed budget shows an overall increase of $3 million, or 11.7%, to the city’s tax levy. Last year, the city approved $22.7 million in taxpayer support, a 3.2% increase over the previous year, for the district’s current budget.
During a presentation Monday, Ritchie said the budget aims to continue supporting core academics, mental health, after school programming, community partnerships and sustaining and filling academic staff gaps.
A slide on the district’s profile shows there are 2,917 enrolled students and 20% require special education, 29% are English learners and 85% are students of color.
Currently 88% of the student population are from within the district and 12% from outside the district. Ritchie said the goal for magnet schools is to have 25% of students from outside the district.
The school district is working to become an all-magnet school district over the next few years. Magnet schools, usually focused on a special area of study, are designed to attract students from across a district. Magnet schools receive additional funding for out-of-district students.
Ritchie said there has been a decrease of magnet school students coming from outside of the district, therefore there has been a decrease in funding. The district is expected to receive $8.2 million next year from magnet grant funding.
Ritchie said another driver to the budget is increased energy costs to cover electricity and heating at schools, covering 300,000 square feet at the middle school and high school alone. The two schools, undergoing renovations, will be fully air conditioned unlike before.
Other items attributed to the budget increase include salary increases, higher insurance premiums and kindergartners returning to the district as Friendship School in Waterford is no longer admitting them. The district is also experiencing a shortage of special education and multi-language learner staff.
Ritchie said cost savers include the reduction of a cabinet-level position from full-time to part-time, moving two administrators to teacher positions, and a partnership with Mitchell College to have a dual college credit program.
Diminishing grant funds
Much like the other schools in the region, the district is figuring out ways to balance what remains of COVID-19-related grants while maintaining new programs and positions. The $16.5 million received by New London Public Schools’ from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund program, or ESSER, is expected to run out in the fall of 2024.
Elaine Maynard-Adams, the board of education’s chairperson, on Wednesday said diminishing grant funds are creating a gap in next year’s budget, but will become a disaster for all school districts when COVID-19 funds run out the following year.
She said the proposed budget reflects what the district knows to be increased needs post-pandemic for students in areas such as mental health and special needs. The district has gained a team of mental health professionals and created more family engagement efforts with ESSER funds.
Ritchie said Tuesday the district has used ESSER and other grant funds to create innovative programs it wishes to expand.
The district’s multi-aged year-round program, which was started during the pandemic, is a schooling alternative that allows students to have their 180 school days spread out into six week intervals throughout the year, with two week breaks in between. The students are taught in multi-aged classrooms by a team of teachers, requiring less yearly transitions.
Ritchie said the district currently offers this option to students in kindergarten to third grade, and it’s going well. The proposed budget for next year seeks to expand the option to fourth and fifth graders.
The district, in collaboration with the city, in 2021 opened its Birth to Age 8 Early Childhood Center at B.P. Mission on 40 Shaw St. The center has a free, limited Pre-K school and is used by the district and city for community gatherings.
Ritchie said the program has been successful and has a long wait list.
The lease and eventual purchase of the center is being accomplished through a mixture of grant funds. The city’s finance department estimated the cost to operate the programs, combined with the $1.5 million purchase price of the building, will cost the city about $2.1 million through four years of operation.
Ritchie said staff positions at the center are funded primarily through federal and state grants. She said the district is committed to applying to longer-term grants and remains hopeful that future legislative action will support the continuation of its new programs after next year.
Editor’s note: This version corrects Elaine Maynard-Adams’ name and adds Mayor Michael Passero’s preliminary estimate of the tax levy increase.
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