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by Jessica Brophy
Administrators, school board members, teachers, parents and community members met for a third school budget forum on March 29.
The series of public forums are scheduled to gather public input on the 2012-13 school budget. Earlier this year, the school board requested that administrators bring a flat budget to the floor for discussion talks. Because certain costs go up every year—such as fuel costs, transportation costs and contractual salaries—a flat budget requires spending prioritizations.
Industrial arts teacher Dennis Saindon asked how many years the administration had been asked to keep the budget flat. Board member Skip Greenlaw said he thought for four years, to counteract the declining enrollment and increases in budget of the past decade.
Board member Linda Nelson said that though attempts had been made to move toward a flat budget, there had still been some increases over the past years. “A lot of the communities around us are asking for cuts,” said Nelson, who said the board had not requested a decrease in the budget, but rather a flat budget. “The goal is to keep the schools here, and sustainable.”
Greenlaw said the number of people who hadn’t paid their taxes in Stonington was the highest he had seen in “over 40 years of living here” and that those numbers indicated difficult times. Board member Vicki Zelnick said that there were many people who had talked to her about the need to curtail the school budget.
Reach Performing Arts Director Morgan Witham shared that she was troubled by the many eighth graders she had heard talking about leaving the school system. “They see things being cut and hear that we’re a failing school,” said Witham, who suggested turning to grant funding or fundraising appeals to supplement the school budget.
The agenda for the forum included the half-time high school librarian position, the elementary school gifted and talented teacher, and the technology budgets.
The proposed budget replaces the half-time certified librarian position at the high school with a half-time library aide, for a reduction in cost of $17,864. The certified librarian position was cut from full time in 2010-11 to half time this year.
High school Principal Todd West said the aide would still be able to check books in and out and perform many of the same duties as the librarian.
In order to make sure there is coverage in the library during study hall hours, teachers this year have rotated to cover times when the librarian is not in the building. Saindon said he found that covering the library detracted from his time to prepare his shop for classes.
Third grade teacher Judy Rhodes asked who would make decisions about purchasing books for the high school library. West said elementary school librarian Susan Guilford would most likely be asked to do that.
Guilford said she had a full plate at the elementary school. “I don’t want to compromise what I do here,” she said. Guilford then offered an alternative vision for the high school library, one that involves facilities renovation and moving the computer lab to an adjacent classroom, creating a windowed wall between the two rooms.
“This would create a media heart to the high school,” said Guilford, who also suggested opening the library to the public outside of school hours.
Those present then addressed the issue of the elementary gifted and talented teacher position (or enrichment teacher as it is also called). The proposed budget cuts the position from four days per week to 2.5 days.
Anne Douglass, the current enrichment teacher, said being cut to half time would mean mostly working with teachers to support in-class differentiation rather than working with students on projects.
Parent Gordon Stewart stressed the importance of maintaining the position, and said the program’s projects would not be easily integrated into a regular classroom. Cole Stewart, a student, shared some information about his enrichment project learning about the presidents and developing a song to remember each of them.
“We’ve got to keep these kids challenged,” said Gordon Stewart.
Parent Heather Mathews also spoke about how her son has benefited from Douglass’ class times. “He’s liking himself better,” she said. “It’s not just about the extra challenge, it’s about getting students to want to be there. Days he has this class are good days.”
Douglass said the program is unique and reaches 20 percent of elementary school students, not just the 2 to 5 percent the state would define as gifted. “We do spend a lot of money at the other end of the spectrum,” said Douglass about special education, which must be funded according to state and federal law. “These are kids who have needs that aren’t being met in regular classrooms,” she continued.
The third and final topic of the meeting was technology costs. The high school purchased netbooks two years ago with stimulus education funding, to achieve one-to-one computing (where every student has a access to a netbook). The netbooks, said West, are not as durable as hoped, and will likely need replacing or phasing out with some other technology over the next few years. To purchase new netbooks for the entire high school student body could cost $75,000 to $150,000, said West, who had wanted to sock away $30,000 in a reserve account for technology to help save up for those costs.
Technology coordinator Marcus Ford offered an alternative vision, “piloting” various technologies rather than committing wholesale to another slew of netbooks or particular laptops. Ford suggested having some students try a tablet like an iPad.