STONINGTON — Lauren Vickerman moved to the area eight years ago and has since seen local education change — and not in a good way, the mother of two said.
“Our schools are doing more and more with less,” she said. “I feel like schools are far behind and going to fall further behind. I feel like education is last on the list in this town.”
Vickerman is one of hundreds of residents who support a proposed increase in the education budget and have signed an online petition imploring the town’s Board of Finance to restore what it has told the Board of Education to cut.
The petition, which members of Stonington Schools PTOs created on change.org, had gathered more than 700 supporters by late Tuesday night.
It comes on the heels of the finance board’s decision last week to slash the school board’s proposed $34.7 million operating budget by $663,213. The district’s plan would have raised spending by 2.96 percent.
“Over the years I’ve seen the support staff and specialists being minimized,” said Vickerman, who is a volunteer with the West Vine-West Broad Street PTO. “The class size is getting bigger. All of it is affecting the morale of the teachers, and it’s trickling down to the kids.”
The Board of Education is holding a special meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Stonington High School Commons to discuss, among other agenda items, proposed cuts to comply with the Board of Finance’s mandated reduction.
“At this time, the budget isn’t final,” John O’Brien, the chairman of the Board of Finance, said Tuesday. “We have a public hearing soon, and we’ll see what people have to say.”
During last week’s meeting, when the reductions were made, O’Brien said he doubted that the finance board would reinstate the cuts, saying “the odds of putting half a million back is pretty low. Frankly, it went up too much.”
He said board members decided that a 0.49-mill increase would be the goal of budget cuts, prompting an overall reduction of about $2.2 million from the proposed 2014-15 town budget. O’Brien said 76 percent of the proposed budget increase came from the school district, and it therefore would have to bear the brunt of the reductions. The board also cut the schools’ capital improvement budget, which included security upgrades.
Emily Kuhn, the PTO secretary at Deans Mill Elementary School, said, “We cannot fall short on our schools. We want the Board of Finance to support the budget as 2.96 percent so we can simply maintain our schools. If we do not invest in our schools here in Stonington, not only will our children be deprived but our town will be passed over as a desirable town to live in.”
Superintendent Van W. Riley and Board of Education Chairman Frank Todisco warned members of the board earlier this month that the education budget would take a hit. Todisco told education finance committee members to “start thinking forward. We’re going to have to make some difficult decisions.” Board of Education members had already decided to reduce Riley’s original proposal of a 4.01 percent increase over the current budget. Those reductions include eight teacher positions, five paraprofessional positions and a technology position.
Dozens of supporters left comments on the petition, including Danielle Cooper, of Pawcatuck, who wrote: “What a huge disservice to all the students in the Stonington Public School System!!! We are seriously considering moving to another school district, which is sad to say. A town that doesn’t value the future of America and the success of its youngest members should be ashamed!!”
Signers of the petition said they feared that the proposed cuts will further reduce the staff and increase the class size beyond the current projection of 19 to 23 students. Reductions also would leave no allowance for new textbooks and “aging building systems will create a hazardous environment for staff and students if they continue to go unaddressed,” according to the petition.
“As a teacher, I see the impact of the cuts and how they affect the students. Larger class sizes benefit no one,” Eleanor Dunn, of Pawcatuck, wrote on the petition. “As a parent, I am concerned about the impact of these cuts on my daughter’s education. Already the Mandarin class she has been in since eighth grade has been cut. Will her extracurricular activities be next?”
Ann Marie Pasquin, treasurer of the West Vine-West Broad Street School PTO, said, “Our children and our town deserve better ... Education is the cornerstone of building a successful future. The children of today will be the leaders of tomorrow and they deserve the chance to thrive. This cannot be accomplished if we continually cut the school/town budget and expect them to do more with less. We are already behind our neighboring towns.”
The Board of Finance’s proposed 2014-15 $58.2 million budget would carry a tax rate of $20.37 per $1,000 of property value. The current tax rate is $19.88 per $1,000; the proposed increase would be 2.46 percent. A public hearing on the budget will be held on April 10 at Stonington High School at 7 p.m.