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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Groton school budget would eliminate more than 100 staff positions next year

    Groton ― About a dozen speakers at a public hearing Wednesday commented on a proposed education budget that despite calling for a 7.91% increase would eliminate the equivalent of 125 positions funded by expiring federal COVID-19 relief funds.

    The full- and part-time positions include tutors, as well as substitutes, aides, teachers, security guards, coordinators, clerical positions, social workers and a custodian/maintenance position, according to Superintendent of Schools Susan Austin.

    Resident Vince Yevoli, one of the speakers at the hearing on Groton’s overall budget, said Groton’s education spending has lagged behind other districts in the area. He implored the town to support the budget and try to find other funds to cover the shortfall of educators.

    Resident Vanessa Ghantous, whose three children benefited from Groton’s educational programs, called for the town to prioritize education.

    “We’re not just educating children,” Ghantous said. “We are educating our future leaders.”

    James Mitchell, a resident and former superintendent, called attention to COVID-19’s impact on the community and supported restoring the staffing.

    “Our students are suffering,” Mitchell said.

    During the hearing, Town Manager John Burt presented the $158.15 million proposed fiscal year 2025 budget, an increase of 6.2% over the current budget. The proposal, which uses about $4 million in fund balance, would raise the tax rate from 22.13 to 24.07 mills.

    Burt said the budget includes a 3.5% increase for town operations, a 7.91% increase for education, a 1.4% increase for capital/debt services, a 2.2% increase for outside agencies and a 15% increase for subdivisions.

    Under the budget proposal, homeowners with a home assessed at $100,000 would see an annual tax increase of $194; homeowners with a home assessed at $200,000 would see an increase of $388; homeowners with a house assessed at $300,000 would see an increase of $582; and homeowners with a house assessed at $400,00 would see an increase of $776, according to Burt’s presentation.

    Of the overall budget, $87.96 million is for education. Austin said the budget drivers for the proposed education budget include increases in contractual salaries, the minimum wage, transportation, insurance and utilities, and uncertainty over a Department of Defense supplemental grant used to cover technology.

    Federal coronavirus relief funds will expire at the end of this fiscal year.

    Adrian Johnson, a Board of Education member who was speaking as a resident, said during the hearing: “It’s not lost on me that the education budget looks like an increase for our schools, but the truth is that the budget will be a substantial cut to instruction and services for our children.”

    Johnson, who had a slightly higher count of eliminated positions than the superintendent based on his belief that there are positions, in addition to those funded by coronavirus relief money, that would be eliminated, said the majority of the staff positions are people who work with children on a daily basis.

    Johnson called instead for the 9.3% increase in the education budget that the Board of Education had discussed.

    Austin said by phone Thursday that the budget still has to go through the entire process, and no one who may be impacted can be identified. She said no paraeducator positions would be eliminated.

    “We just have to wait and see what the final answer is going to be from the community,” she said.

    Elizabeth A. Williams, a special education tutor at Robert E. Fitch High School and a union representative for the paraeducators’ union, said by phone Thursday that a meeting is scheduled for April 15 between union leadership and the administration. She said the positions proposed to be eliminated are people who work directly with students.

    “It’s really going to affect the children of our district,” she said.

    At Wednesday’s hearing, speakers also advocated for open space, parks and recreation and the Groton Public Library.

    With the cost of basic necessities going up, resident Annette Lapkowski asked town officials to “think thrifty” when tackling the budget.

    “Pushing more costs onto taxpayers only adds more uncertainty in these trying financial times,” Lapkowski said.

    Lian Obrey, a Representative Town Meeting member, spoke about encouraging economic development to increase revenue. She said Groton is far behind the growth other towns in the region are seeing, especially in housing.

    Burt said the Town Council is beginning its budget reviews and must approve a budget by April 28. The RTM must make a decision by May 25, and the council must set the tax rate by June 9.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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