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BOE Rejects Proposed Budget
By Kim Becker
In an unanticipated move, three Board of Education members derailed efforts to approve the administration’s proposed budget, citing concerns about increasing third grade class size and the low tuition for regular education students at the integrated preschool. Dr. Alan Addley, superintendent of schools, was charged with finding a way to keep a third grade teacher, thus reducing the class size, and still keep the budget increase to only 2.4 percent as the Board of Finance requested. This will mean that Addley must make cuts elsewhere as the salary for the third grade teacher pushes the increase to 2.54 percent, which the BOE believes is a nonstarter for the BOF. Currently, the budget increase stands at 2.29 percent, primarily due to new contracts for teachers, administrators, and teaching assistants and increased special education costs.
Lynn Guelzow expressed reservations about dropping a section of third grade because the administration estimates that the average class size will reach 23.4 students in third grade next year. That is a 23 percent increase from the 19 students per class average this year in second grade. Class size coupled with a historic achievement dip in third grade and the usual transition issues to new schools convinced Guelzow, Rosemarie Weber, and Melissa Migliaccio to slow the approval process.
The Board discussed swapping teaching positions by removing the math/science consulting teacher for 7-12 grades in order to put the third grade teacher back in and remain budget neutral. Weber, citing concerns about math instruction in 8th and 9th grades, would not support that trade-off. Several board members agreed that it was worth, as Ben Perron put it, “going to bat” for teachers after years of making due with less.
At this point, several teachers across the district are facing reduced positions or being laid off due to declining enrollment. Next year, enrollment is expected to dip by 30 students and by as much as 15 percent over the next five years. The administration is in the process of standardizing the middle and high school schedules to make teaching at both schools possible. Harry Traver, District Business Manager, called the cuts “painful” and said that principals have already spoken to impacted educators about next year’s cuts.
Another issue that drew ire from board members was low preschool tuition for regular education children. Children with special needs attend the preschool at no cost to their families. The administration wants to expand the program by two classes to accommodate an increasing special education preschool population and raise the ratio of “non-disabled peers” from 1:1 to 2:1. Addley called this year’s deficit of $300,000 for special education costs and outplacement a “growing difficulty.”
The preschool expansion created anxiety among local early-education businesses, which have already been negatively impacted by competition from the district that they feel is underpriced. When the integrated preschool was opened three years ago, the district’s own consultants said that the annual tuition of $1500 per child was too low. That rate has remained, much to frustration of local private preschools, which, faced with declining enrollment, must charge anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000 annually for a five- day-per-week program.
Kathy Jackson, Director and Lead Teacher of Valley Pre-School, spoke to the board about the best interests of the child. She and her faculty are greatly concerned by the low ratio of non-disabled peers to special education children. In the past when Granby worked with community schools, the ratio was much higher (7:1 at VPS) and Jackson believes that lead to better outcomes for all students. The administration pointed out that they seek an increase from the state-mandated 1:1 ratio to a 2:1 ratio to improve outcomes.
The board had earlier made a decision to review all fees, including summer school, pay-for-play, and preschool, for the 2016-17 school year. Additionally, the administration was asked to produce data about tuition at area preschools for the March 18 board meeting. Based on those findings, Migliaccio made the case that the integrated preschool is a quality program that is currently underpriced. Her concerns were shared by Guelzow and Weber, who also mentioned the impact to the tax base if local preschools and daycares closed due to the increased competition inherent in preschool expansion and the low tuition rates.
Jenny Emery voiced concern that the district couldn’t afford not to expand the preschool as outplacements cost up to $100,000 per year depending on a child’s needs. She cautioned that raising the tuition could result in fewer non-disabled peers, leading to poor ratios that would impact program quality. Other board members expressed concerns about how families would handle a tuition increase that would be due in September. Because preschool tuition fees go to the Quality and Diversity fund, any additional revenues would not impact the operating budget.
In order to come to consensus on the proposed budget, the board directed Addley to develop a budget that increases no more than 2.4 percent, less than the 2.54 percent needed to simply add back a section of third grade. Addley warned that would likely mean cuts in the middle school staff. High school sports were also mentioned as a potential area to trim. Mark Fiorentino agreed that such measures may be necessary but didn’t want targeted cuts. Instead he prefers to decrease funding across all sports, if needed.
The board also authorized Addley to have exploratory conversations with the towns of East Granby and Winsted/Winchester about opening a pathway for their students to attend Granby Memorial High School, possibly modeled on the Hartland agreement. Board members received assurances that any such plans would include a strong parent-choice component and would not in any way be predatory.