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    Friday, April 19, 2024

    Groton school board grappling with budget hike

    Groton ― The Board of Education will hold budget workshops this week as it grapples with a proposed 2024-25 budget being fueled by increased costs for staff, transportation, health care and utilities.

    Superintendent of Schools Susan Austin had initially proposed a $92.4 million budget, or 13.4% more than the current budget of $81.5 million.

    But the proposal is in flux as the board is reviewing potential cuts, and school officials are slated to continue to offer proposals to reduce the budget before voting on it next week.

    At a Feb. 15 special meeting, school officials presented to board members a list of ideas for potential reductions that would decrease the proposal to $88.9 million, 9.1% more than the current year’s budget.

    Those include about $2.2 million in reductions that don’t involve staff. The list ranges from reducing next year’s payment for non-pension benefits for retired employees to reviewing bus routes so buses are not stopping at locations where students no longer need to be picked up.

    There are also $1.2 million in personnel reductions in the proposal, including cutting back on clerical overtime, building substitutes, a guidance counselor and tutor hours, among other changes.

    At a Feb. 12 joint meeting of the Board of Education, Town Council and Representative Town Meeting Education Committee, David Fleig, the school district’s finance director, said the major factors for the budget increase include hikes in wages, mainly due to contractual increases and staff positions, which the district added with COVID-19 relief funds that will expire at the end of this fiscal year. Austin said students continue to need some of those staff, including tutors, that the district hired with the funds.

    Fleig said the district next year will face additional transportation costs with rate increases for buses, insurance and utilities, among other factors.

    Fleig also said the current fiscal year is challenging as health insurance claims are up 25%, and there are unplanned expenses, such as water issues at schools and a generator problem, transportation increases, unpaid student lunch charges, utility costs and contractual and wage increases.

    In addition, $626,000 of the previous year’s expenses were deferred to the current fiscal year, and another $132,000 of invoices from last year were not received until this year.

    Elected officials asked questions and some criticized the increase in the proposed budget and its impact on taxpayers, and referenced earlier discussions about not rolling into the budget the staff positions hired with COVID-19 relief once the funding ended.

    They made suggestions, such as the school district running its own buses, and said teaching and learning should be the focus of spending.

    The board will hold budget work sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as Friday, if needed, with a potential vote on Monday, according to Austin.

    The meeting schedule is available at https://www.grotonschools.org/aboutus/board-of-education/calendar.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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