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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    New London school budget a statement of values

    The New London Board of Education has sent a budget to the mayor requesting an increase in local funding of slightly less than 10 percent. What is driving this request is the fact that in the upcoming 2024-25 school year we are facing the loss of more than $10 million in federal assistance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we look at the underlying reasons for this we should remember that 1/3 of the total education budget is supported by local tax dollars. State funding, mainly in the form of Education Cost Sharing dollars, represents another 1/3 of the budget. And the last 1/3 is supported by federal, state and private foundation grants.

    As the world began to emerge from the COVID-19 global pandemic it was apparent that a great deal of learning loss had occurred in school-aged children; babies, toddlers and preschoolers were experiencing many developmental delays, and many of our nation’s children had suffered great social and emotional stress. In an effort to address those delays and losses the federal government provided large payments to education in the form of ESSER grants. And for three years New London has used its ESSER money wisely to build capacity to address these delays and losses. We invested in technology so that all students would have computers or I-pads for instructional use in every classroom. We have added social workers, school psychologists, occupational, physical and speech therapists. We invested heavily in adding supports to improve our school climate including behavior motivators, after school clubs and activities, expanded before school opportunities. We hired professional educators to provide early intervention with students who are struggling with reading and math. These one-on-one instructional opportunities have demonstrated great results in helping children to get on grade level. And, we partnered with the city to purchase the former B.P. Learned Mission, and in that space created a wonderfully successful preschool program. The ESSER grant money is now running out, but the needs of our students haven’t decreased in proportion to the loss of grant funding.

    These were the headwinds we faced as we began to build our budget proposal for the 2024-25 school year. From the start we knew we were losing almost $10.5M in COVID assistance. In October the board gave the superintendent parameters for budget development. Our superintendent then met with administrators, including building principals, to ask for their suggestions for budget reductions. Principals in turn met with parents and teachers and other building level representatives, and turned their suggestions in to the superintendent’s office. Concurrently we worked with our service providers (insurances, transportation, etc.) to get estimates of costs for next year. We looked at all the uses of those ESSER dollars, determined what was successful and what we could live without. And we looked at how we might improve efficiencies and thereby reduce costs.

    We looked at our student population to find the greatest areas of need. We know that almost 200 students have entered New London Public Schools since Oct. 1. We know that at least 60% of those new students are multi language learners, adding to the approximately 1,000 students already in need of English language instruction. In total multi language students make up approximately 1/3 of our entire student population. We also looked at the approximately 20% of our students who require special education services, services ranging from speech and language services and therapies to occupational therapy, to physical therapy, to mental health supports to social and emotional support and or intervention services. Armed with this information and feed back from our staff, students and families, we continued to build the budget with the goal of meeting the needs of our students and families and preserving teaching positions at any cost.

    We found some savings in administration and eliminated some central office positions including an assistant superintendent and a director of academics. We reduced a finance director, and eliminated one support staff member in that department. We reorganized Human Resources, reducing two positions there. We looked at the magnet office, eliminating the position of magnet communications manager and another team member. We eliminated positions in the secretarial and custodial bargaining units.

    We looked at pending retirements to determine if there could be some savings there. Two guidance counselor positions that will be vacated at the end of the school year will not be refilled. We found some savings in positions that are currently funded but vacant, made difficult decisions about what was absolutely necessary and eliminated the rest. And lastly we looked for savings in such things as professional development, software licenses, classroom and office supplies, etc.

    Yet with all of this we are still looking at a very sizeable increase. We have new unfunded state mandates that we must meet. We have contractual salary increases we must meet. We are anticipating a hefty increase in the cost of bus transportation next year. We are facing increases in the cost of benefits, and payments into the city retirement plans that many of our employees participate in. More than 300 of our students are homeless. There are large increases in the number of students who require English language instruction. And, the cost to operate our B.P. Learned preschool program without ESSER money is $2.5 million, including building costs such as heat and electricity, student transportation, teachers, paraprofessionals, school nurse and other salaries.

    The Board of Education is not tone deaf to the burden this request creates for the city. We are all taxpayers too. And we understand that its not always possible to bake a bigger pie. We do believe though that the way we slice the pie should reflect the values and needs of our community, including our youngest learners who have no vote and little voice. This budget is a statement of our values and reflects our belief that dollars invested in our young people now pay huge dividends later.

    Elaine Maynard-Adams is President of the New London Board of Education.

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