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    Back down, parents tell finance board

    STONINGTON — Middle school basketball. Ninth-grade football and boys and girls basketball.

    Middle school French class. Stonington High School Chinese-Mandarin. Both the middle and high schools Summer Academy programs.

    A seventh-grade teacher at Pawcatuck Middle School. A part-time music paraprofessional at Mystic Middle School. A total of 5.2 teaching-certificated positions across the district.

    About 200 residents, mostly parents, listened to Superintendent Van Riley rattle off a page-and-a-half of possible cuts to the Stonington Public Schools for the 2014-15 school year if the town’s Board of Finance is unyielding in its decision that the Board of Education slash more than half a million dollars from its budget.

    “It’s a sad day for our teachers, our staff, especially our students,” Board chairman Frank Todisco told the crowd Thursday night at a special meeting. “Our children deserve better. Stonington can do better.”

    No decisions are final, but board members wanted the public to know what personnel, classes and programs are on the chopping block for consideration if the Board of Finance holds firm in its insistence that the school budget be held to less than a 1 percent increase. The public hearing on the budget will be April 10.

    While the original mandated cut of $663,000 was reduced to $525,000 because of savings from health benefit costs for 2014-15, Riley’s recommendations were portrayed as “devastating.”

    “We’re letting six people on the Board of Finance hold hostage what’s right for your children,” Michael Freeman, the vice president of the Stonington Education Association, told the crowd. “It’s been going on for a decade. We’ve lost our foundation. We can’t let it go on.”

    Noah Blanchette, a junior at Stonington High, said he was nervous. “Sports cuts are not good, none of it is good,” he said. “If you cut sports, students aren’t going to have anything to do anymore. They may do drugs.”

    Riley, in a budget recommendation packet to the Board of Education, wrote of the town’s budget process: “The annual procedure of determining funding for the town, facilities and education is based on a tradition of behind-the-door discussions with no open dialogue about impacts of those decisions.”

    “Not one person from the Board of Finance has called us, opened the door,” Riley said Thursday. “We need to meet with them. They need to understand what these cuts mean.”

    Riley’s proposed districtwide cuts include $61,000 from athletics and extracurricular activities; $36,000 in spending for classified personnel; $120,000 of administration support for the state’s new teacher evaluation system; and $40,000 in other materials.

    Reducing seventh grade teachers from four to three at Pawcatuck Middle School would mean a class size of 18-24 students, and both middle schools would lose library paraprofessionals.

    At the high school, reductions in full-time equivalent positions in both French and physical education would mean higher class sizes.

    The Virtual High School would be eliminated, drama would lose $1,000 in support and transportation for the crew team would be eliminated.

    Before the Board of Finance’s mandated reduction, the school board had already conceded eight teacher positions, five paraprofessional positions and a technology position to lower Riley’s proposed increase to 2.96 percent.

    “These reductions will have a significant negative impact on our children,” Riley said.

    Riley said that if the finance board continues to give education a 1 percent annual increase, in five years the district would have to eliminate all athletics and extracurricular activities and reduce 100 teaching positions, resulting in average class sizes of 50 or more.

    “Hopefully these facts will encourage the Board of Finance to consider impacts of their arbitrary decisions,” he wrote.

    According to the most recent report of Municipal Fiscal Indicators from the state Office of Policy and Management, Stonington’s net expenditure per student in 2011-12 was $13,238, while the state average was $14,138. Compared to all 169 towns in Connecticut, Stonington is 45th in wealth, and 155th in tax rates.

    The finance board’s overall $58.2 million budget proposal for the town would carry a tax rate of $20.37 per $1,000 of property value. That’s an increase of 49 cents per $1,000, or 2.46 percent, compared with this year’s tax rate.

    “This is horrible,” parent Sue Jones said. “Parents need to show up to the April 10 meeting. Call Board of Finance members. Call them during dinner. Do whatever we can to stop this.”

    The April 10 hearing will be at 7 p.m. at Stonington High School.

    Alternatives

    Riley said no one is asking for unrealistic tax increases. He said he’s come up with two proposals for the finance board to consider that would result in keeping the increase in education funding at about 2.5 percent for 2014-15 with no further increases above what the finance board has already approved.

    His first proposal suggests that the board adjust the percentage spent on the school budget to the District Reference Group average.

    The state of Connecticut divides towns into DRGs, which are groupings of similar towns. Towns in Stonington’s DRG that also support a local police department spend an average of 63.5 percent of their town budgets on education, Riley said.

    Stonington spends between 57 and 58 percent on the schools, he said. If the Board of Finance would make the adjustment, it would transfer more than $2.9 million to the education budget without additional taxes above what has already been approved.

    “This would result in an 8.55 percent increase to the Board of Education budget,” Riley wrote in his proposal. “Obviously this is more than requested, but the concept is sound. If we want quality schools that attract businesses and families to Stonington, simply make education a priority.”

    Riley’s second proposal asks the finance board to do the same for the police and town portions of the capital improvement fund as it did with the Board of Education’s capital fund: eliminate all facilities and safety items with the caveat those items would appear on a future separate bond approved by the board.

    The deleted items for the police and town portions of the capital improvement fund would be placed on the same bond as schools.

    “This would save $421,894 that then could be used to keep the education budget at around 2.5 percent,” Riley wrote.

    Not giving up

    Support for the school budget is ramping up among residents. At Thursday’s meeting, several parents encouraged the crowd to show up at the April 10 hearing and speak up, and to email and call finance board members directly.

    An online petition supporting the 2.96 percent increase in the education budget and asking the finance board to reverse its decision is gaining ground, too.

    The petition, which members of Stonington Schools PTOs created on change.org, has gathered more than 800 supporters with a goal of 2,500.

    Organizers believe 2,500 is the number of voters it would take to pass a budget with a 2.96 percent increase.

    “The fact is that going along with the Board of Finance on this is unreasonable,” parent Ashley Gillece said. “We can’t continue taking cuts for education year after year.”

    alemoine@thewesterlysun.com



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