The Board of Education requested a slight increase in funding over an initial recommendation Thursday, asking for a 2.54 percent increase to its 2014 fiscal year budget.
The board voted 5-2 to request an additional $400,000 over the 1.5 percent increase—or $597,263—requested from the city in initial budget discussions. The additional funding will be allocated toward enhancing the guidance program at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The total budget request amounts to $40,814,666.
The vote came after a debate in which the board questioned whether the extra money should be added directly to the budget or whether Superintendent Nicholas Fischer should develop a plan to reduce out-of-district expenditures such as $3,948,000 in tuition costs and $1,507,574 in transportation costs for special education students and others educated outside of New London.
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The Finance and Audit Committee approved a proposal by board member Bill Morse on Tuesday to add funding to support a guidance counselor at BDJMS and one additional teacher for each grade from kindergarten through third grade. Morse said the five positions would address concerns raised by parents over class sizes and the guidance program at the middle school.
On Thursday, Board President Peg Curtin suggested that Fischer should develop a plan within 60 days to bring more out-of-district students back into New London Public Schools to reduce out-of-district costs and hire the additional staff from those savings. Morse said he would support seeking such internal savings, but wanted to request the additional funding from the City Council as well.
“I want two shots at having this additional staff,” he said.
Fischer said the district has placed 34 out-of-district children this year, but has brought eight back for an estimated savings of $249,000. He said the district will also start to work toward bringing more students into the district as it begins to transition to an all magnet school model.
“The way over time that we will draw magnet school students back is to have programs that are attractive to magnet school parents,” he said.
Dr. Stephen Adamowski, a state-appointed special master to the district, agreed that the district needs to reduce out-of-district expenses. However, he also recommended that funding be allocated toward the goals of enhancing the BDJMS guidance program and reducing elementary school class sizes rather than funding specific positions so the school staff can make recommendations on how best to accomplish the goals.
Secretary Jason Catala said he supported the request for a 1.5 percent increase in funding, but also thought the district should look within the budget to find savings as well.
“I’m thinking that we need to be creative and go and find those dollars for special ed services,” he said.
An amendment by Catala to find the funding for the five proposed positions, specifically within out-of-district special education expenses, failed in a 2-5 vote.
The Finance and Audit Committee previously approved a request for a 1.5 percent increase in funding from the city for a total budget of $40,414,666. Under Fischer’s proposal, the budget is divided with 70 percent going to operation of the schools and 30 percent going to central services. The increase covers areas such as contractual salary increases and higher transportation and energy costs.
At a public hearing on Tuesday, several residents protested the requested increase as too modest for a starting point and said the budget does not address areas such as building maintenance, class sizes, professional support, and the loss of staff under last year’s budget. Morse proposed the additional positions to address some of these concerns
The district’s $39,817,405 budget has been flat-funded for five years. The board requested a six percent budget increase for the 2012-2013 school year, and the City Council ultimately approved a $40.6 million budget, with the increase to come from an anticipated increase in ECS funding as well as savings from a transfer of the business office expenses to the city budget.
Adamowski halted both actions, saying the ECS money could not be included in the budget and that more planning was needed before any consolidation of city and school financial offices could take place. Under the 2013 fiscal year budget, the district eliminated 46.5 positions.
The budget will first go to Mayor Daryl Finizio before his April 1 presentation of a proposal of a municipal and school budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Finizio said Tuesday that he would pass on any Board of Education request unchanged to the City Council for consideration.