STONINGTON — Citing the Board of Education’s proposed zero percent increase for 2019-20, Superintendent Van Riley requested that the Board of Finance restore its proposed $330,000 cut to the school budget during the finance board's public hearing Tuesday night at Stonington High School.
Standing at the microphone, Riley told the board that it had requested the district to hold the line on spending in next year’s budget, and the Board of Education came in at $5,000 less than the current year.
Riley said cutting the school budget by $330,000 would affect staffing and programs.
“Coming in below what you suggested at a zero percent increase, an additional $330,000 is just something we don’t want our students to have the impact of,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, Board of Finance Chair June Strunk said that the board was considering bonding for a number of big-tickets items needed at the new Stonington Middle School, including a new roof, more parking and an air conditioning system, as well as items needed at the new district office to be located at the former Pawcatuck Middle School.
She said the $67 million elementary school project came in at about $2.5 million under budget, but the town cannot use that money for a different purpose. Instead of borrowing the $2.5 million from the elementary school bond, the town would bond a new amount to cover the new items.
Riley said he agreed with the concept of bonding for large capital improvements that could be deferred.
“I do appreciate the idea of bonding some of the major items, such as the roof and the air conditioning systems,” he said. “I think that’s wise on the part of the Board of Finance and we will certainly work with you on developing that plan.”
However, Riley asked the board to reinstate capital improvement items that he said were needed immediately and could not be put off, such as baseboard heat, cafeteria tables, painting the interior and exterior of Stonington Middle School, signage for the new middle school, replacement of padding on the gym walls and floor repairs, among others.
“These are not large amounts, they are certainly are not something that would go in a bond,” he said. “But they are things our middle school students deserve in our new middle school this coming fall.”
Riley said that if the Board of Finance reinstated the $330,000, the money would be used for maintenance and betterment of the buildings in the district.
Liz Green, of Pawcatuck, who said she had one child at Mystic Middle School and one at Stonington High School, said it was important to support the completion and unity of Stonington Middle School.
“This is something the entire town got behind. This is something that has been hard-fought and now we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
She said the students from both middle schools got together to choose a new name for the middle school and a new mascot.
“Those kinds of choices brought the two student bodies together not only for the first time but for the future,” she said.
Green said that if the board didn’t provide the items needed to complete the process of unifying the middle schools, the budget cut would potentially divide the community. “It will destroy the morality and the unity that last year we were finally able to put in place and build on,” she said.
Ayo Grant, of Pawcatuck, said she was surprised to hear that the new middle school needed capital improvement items.
“I thought the whole school consolidation process had addressed all these items,” she said. “Having to hear about air conditioning and parking lots being requested and now to hear about cafeteria tables. My son no longer goes to Stonington schools, but as a taxpayer and a supporter of education, I think it’s important we give the schools the tools they need to be able to teach our future — let’s not shortchange them.”
Board of Finance member Mike Fauerbach said the $330,000 cut was based on a medical actuarial estimate for health care, for which the Board of Education had budgeted more than necessary. He said that the reduction would not affect students, teachers or programs.
Alexa Garvey, chair of the Board of Education, acknowledged that the health item was $255,000 more than what the town’s insurance agent had suggested.
“We are willing to bring back a recommendation to the Board of Education to consider using $255,000 toward maintenance and facilities so that we can show we are working together and addressing the health care issue.”