STONINGTON — Superintendent Van Riley is proposing a zero percent increase for the 2019-20 school budget. Meeting Thursday with the Board of Education at the Stonington High School Commons, he said that consolidating the middle schools would save $1 million.

The proposed budget totals $38,004,749, which is actually $11,007, or .03 percent, less than the current budget. The 2018-19 budget was 2.1 percent higher than the previous year.

In his report, Riley said the zero percent increase was made possible by a combination of factors including the upcoming consolidation of Pawcatuck Middle School and Mystic Middle School in the 2019-20 school year; the creation of an Alternative Education Program for special needs; and the retirement of 13 teachers.

The middle school consolidation provided the biggest savings by far, Riley said

“Based on the past few years, without consolidation, there would have been an increase of approximately 2.5 — 3 percent or about $1 million,” he read from his report. “Savings from the consolidation allowed the district to meet educational needs with no increase in the general fund.”

The savings probably amounted to about $1.3 to $1.5 million but some of the savings were put back into the budget, he said.

“It’s a complex budget but it certainly meets the needs moving forward for the next several years,” he said.

Developing the new budget required reconfiguring several buildings and academic programs, he said. The middle school move required programs for Grades 6, 7, and 8, including an array of special classes for students who need special assistance. Fifth graders will remain in the elementary schools in 2019-20, which was made possible by the expansion and renovation of Deans Mill School and West Vine Street School. The pre-K programs will move back to the elementary sites.

In addition, two school district buildings — West Broad Street School and the Central Office — will be closed and returned to the town. The current Pawcatuck Middle School will be converted to the new District Office and provide space for the Alternative Education Center.

The Alternative Education Program will lower the district’s costs by providing programs for special education students, some of whom have been transported to other districts. The district also bought a third specialized van, increasing its “fleet” to three vehicles, to offset transportation costs for special needs students. The alternative program will also provide for the education of expelled students and students who need a smaller instructional setting.

For the first time this year, the district also offered a retirement incentive program to teachers with a variety of options. Thirteen teachers signed up, which helped the district consolidate staffing and cut the district’s costs by about $300,000. Their replacements will be hired at a much lower rate.

Some of the district’s strategies for “keeping costs down while maintaining and improving programs” included regionalizing programs with neighboring districts and keeping utility costs down by negotiating electricity rates and switching to LED lights. The summer school special education program will also be revamped to reduce costs by increasing the overall hours per day and decreasing the number of days. The district also hired a health care insurance consultant to keep health benefit increases to a minimum.

In his report, Riley said the budget provides the funding “to meet the needs of all our students while maintaining a conservative financial base."

He added, however, that the threat of state aid cuts continues to loom each year.

“The more we can do to be ready for that, I think it will be better for the entire town,” he said.

chewitt@thewesterlysun.com

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