2018-02-15 / Front Page

School board gets to work on budget cuts

Increase for 2018-19 still almost 5% compared to this year’s plan

Fewer field trips and a larger slice of the surplus are among the changes that have reduced the taxpayers’ portion of the school district’s proposed budget by $171,042 for 2018-19.

“The reductions are incredibly creative,” B.J. Whitehouse, chairman of the school committee, said. “This is pretty impressive.”

The administration presented the updated plan to the school board last Thursday following Whitehouse’s plea for diligence. The original proposal, unveiled Jan. 25, called for $12.86 million to operate the schools in the upcoming year. That number represented a 5.9 percent increase from this year, including a $714,563 increase to the taxpayers’ contribution.

Last week’s cuts, however, which were presented by business manager Jane Littlefield, reduce the measure to $12.75 million. Along with the spending reductions, which totaled $108,244, the downtick was driven by an additional $25,800 from the unreserved fund and a $36,600 increase in state aid.

Compared to this year, the plan represents a $543,880 increase for taxpayers, or 4.9 percent, for a total taxpayer cost of $11.74 million.

The superintendent of schools, Ken Duva, worked on the cuts from home as he continues to recover from back surgery. He did, however, send a memo along with his tightened proposal. He said the reductions will not curb the district’s ability to operate award-winning schools.

“This will still allow the school department to provide a rigorous education,” he wrote. “These reductions will have the least amount of impact on our students.”

Among the cuts, Duva and his team proposed slashing $16,700 in supplies, which includes athletic uniforms, and $12,400 in equipment, which includes musical instruments. The updated measure also turns the elementary school art teacher into a part-time position, cuts back on field trips, and eliminates tech coaches and extracurricular coordinators.

Despite the smaller staff, after-school activities and technology instruction would remain status quo in the upcoming school year, according to Littlefield, who said teachers and staff have indicated they can pick up the slack.

“They will happen, but we will just have to be creative,” she said. “We are very confident that all programs will continue.”

In his memo, Duva also called for collaboration among the administration, teachers and families.

“We are all in this together,” he said. “We have identified ways that we will need to work a bit harder, and may need to become more creative to fill some of these voids, but I’m confident that we can still provide a strong, well-rounded education.”

The biggest cut during the presentation also was the most scrutinized. The $31,000 proposal would eliminate a contracted counselor that deals confidentially with students experiencing problems, including sudden grade drops, depression, tardiness, substance abuse, legal troubles and bullying. The counselor also listens to students facing domestic issues, such as divorcing parents and physical abuse.

“We’re dealing with depression and mental health issues all across the country,” said parent Allison Nathan during open forum last Thursday. “I don’t know exactly what the price tag is, but it seems really counterintuitive to take away student assistance. Maybe we just have to suck it up for a few years.”

Nathan’s rationale was shared by Whitehouse, fellow parents, teachers and Councilman Mike White.

“Seeing the kids who need that service on a daily basis, I support that position,” Lawn School science teacher Jim Kaczynski.

Speaking as a grandfather and not the school board’s liaison to the council, White said he needed to see a backup plan for dealing with these troubled children before he can support the position’s elimination.

“This is not a time in our society when we should take away any kind of counseling because of money,” he said. “There is no excuse for it whatsoever.”

Rebecca Bringhurst, a resource teacher and union president, warned about the future of the position if it were cut.

“When things get taken off the table, they don’t often get put back on it,” she said.

Despite Whitehouse’s objection, there was another cut recommended by the school board during the meeting. Because of the “spirited collaboration” between teachers and administrators, which includes replacing catered meals with potlucks during professional development meetings, Committeewoman Sally Schott said the school board should join that partnership and forgo a pay increase. Although it’s only a $2,100 increase to the line item, Schott suggested nixing the proposed stipend increase for members. Committeewomen Sarah Baines, Agnes Filkens and Dorothy Strang agreed.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t,” Whitehouse said. “But I’ll go along with it.”

“It’s a difficult year,” Baines replied. “We can revisit it next year.”

There were parents who suggested sticking to the original budget, but Baines emphasized the board’s responsibility to taxpayers. She recalled walking door-to-door during her campaign.

“Not everybody is rolling in money,” she said. “We do need to keep our taxes down to get young families to move here. We are so expensive with real estate. We need to keep taxes responsible.”

Before adjourning, Whitehouse told the members to mull the public comments and revised budget. The board reconvenes again at 7 tonight at Lawn School to discuss the measure. A final budget workshop is scheduled for Feb. 22, which is the deadline to vote on a spending plan. The town council needs to see the plan by its first March meeting so the school board can rework the budget if directed.

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