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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Superintendent: Groton school budget cut could mean staff, program reductions

    Groton ― Superintendent of Schools Susan Austin said the Town Council’s reduction of the proposed 2024-25 education budget this week could mean multiple staff layoffs, larger class sizes and cuts to extracurricular, arts, music and athletic programs.

    But she said no decisions have been made yet on how to handle the proposed reduction as she works with staff and the Board of Education.

    The Board of Education approved in February a $87.9 milllion education budget that called for a 7.9% increase. That proposal called for eliminating about 125 staff positions, mostly due to the expiration of COVID-19 relief funding.

    With the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut ending its school nursing program, the school district will directly hire nurses. This increased the school budget by another $1.2 million above the budget the board approved in February. The town budget had previously funded the visiting nurses services.

    On Tuesday, the council cut the education budget to $86.4 million, a 6% increase over the current budget. The increase would have been just 4.5% percent, if the nursing funding, which accounts for 1.5% of the increase, had not been added to the budget.

    The council is slated to vote Tuesday on a $153.5 million overall budget for next fiscal year, which is a 3.1% increase over the current adjusted budget, Burt said. The budget would raise the tax rate from 22.13 mills to 23.08 mills.

    The budget is slated to go to the Representative Town Meeting on May 1. The education budget is slated to go to the RTM’s education committee before then.

    Board of Education Chairman Jay Weitlauf said in a statement that he understands the council’s desire not to raise taxes too much and is concerned with that as well.

    He said the education budgets have had an average increase of 1% over the past 7 to 10 years, with years of no increase.

    “How could anyone ask for less?” he asked.

    He said the board’s budget proposal returns to pre-COVID-19 staffing levels, and there are no new programs, staff or services.

    "This budget request was driven by a $3.2 million increase in health insurance, increased transportation and utility costs and contractual increases,“ he said.

    Austin said the district faces high health insurance claims due to continuing effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. People are still getting sick and are facing physical, emotional and mental health issues, while people also are getting surgeries and care put off during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the district has drawn down its health savings reserve.

    During deliberations at Tuesday’s Town Council budget review session, Board of Education members pleaded with the council to maintain funding for education.

    Councilors asked questions about the budget over the hours-long meeting.

    At a public hearing last month many people spoke in support of funding for the schools’ budget, but councilors said they are hearing from people in the community that they can’t afford the proposed increase.

    Town Councilor Jill Rusk said people can handle small increases over time, but not a 7.9% increase at once.

    She said she would love to fully support the education budget, but more than 40% of Groton residents can’t afford what they’re paying right now.

    “They’re living paycheck to paycheck, and they can’t do this,” said Rusk.

    Town Councilor Juliette Parker said she hears the concerns from those fully supporting the education budget, but at the same time families are being evicted, people are homeless and people are moving out of town to find a less expensive town. She said it would be wonderful to keep taxes lower, because there is no economic development coming in to offset anything.

    On the topics of poverty, food insecurity and homelessness, Town Councilor Portia Bordelon said education prevents and closes those divides.

    “Education is the one tool that we have to close those gaps,” she said.

    Councilor David McBride said the district is facing a healthcare issue and recommended focusing on fixing that.

    The Council voted 6-1 for the reduction in the education budget, with Councilors Rachael Franco, who is the town mayor, Bruce Jones, McBride, Parker, Adam J. Puccino, Sr. and Rusk in favor of the reduction, and Bordelon opposed. Councilor Dan Gaiewski recused himself and Councilor Roscoe Merritt was excused.

    k.drelich@theday.com

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