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BOE adopts budget with class size concerns

After a sparsely attended public hearing on April 10 at Coginchaug Regional High School, the Board of Education moved the 2014-2015 school budget towards a referendum on May 6, locking in a net 1.74 percent increase while allowing potential line item changes to address concerns over class size.

Much of the public discussion during the two hours of budget presentation and public comment centered around the proposed cut of a third grade teacher at Korn Elementary School and a fifth grade contemporary teacher at Memorial Middle School.

Introducing the budget, superintendent Kathryn Veronesi described it as responsive to the community. “You have told me, ‘We want to be great again,’” Veronesi said. “Our greatness will be based on our willingness to be courageous in programming, resources, and people.”

Gwen Wirger told the BOE that the fifth grade class size average of 23.7, the result of one position’s elimination, was too high.

Wirger, who said she moved to Durham ten years ago from a town with lower taxes, told the audience, “I’m fine with paying taxes for what I’m getting. I’m concerned that over those ten years what I’m paying for ... has declined, so I’m on board with returning to greatness and what it takes and I don’t feel that cutting a third and fifth grade teacher is going to help us return to greatness.”

Overall, the proposed budget contains a net reduction of 10.2 positions, including 1 special education position, 4 instructional assistant positions, and the 0.6 librarian position at John Lyman Elementary School. Even with the reductions, the 2014-2015 salary and benefits line increased by 1.96 percent, from $20,562,141 to $20,964,453, reflecting contractually obligated increases.

BOE member Bob Fulton told the audience that the salary and benefits line was the largest portion of the budget, but also difficult to control in ways other than headcount.

Fulton showed a slide depicted class sizes within the BOE guidelines even after reductions. The classrooms shown were all under the maximum, with the exception of 2014-2015 third graders at Korn, at 22.3 with a recommendation of 22.

The fifth grade class under discussion, with the contemporary class projected at 23.7, has a BOE class size guideline of 21-25.

Aimee Brown of Durham told the board that both third and fifth grades were transition grades in the contemporary program, with larger classes making that more of a burden.

District business manager Ron Melnik said there were variables in the cost of hiring a teacher. The price could range from $45,000 to $70,000 depending on the teacher’s experience and insurance impact.

When the BOE reconvened after the public hearing, Brewster Elementary School principal Nancy Heckler told the board the size of the classes and the change were concerns for parents. Class sizes in those contemporary grades have been lower in recent years, Heckler said, so the increase, while still within the guidelines, was significant.

Before the board voted to move the budget forward, BOE chair Kerrie Flanagan directed the administrative team to search for a way to address those concerns. Any adjustments proposed in the coming weeks will also involve cuts, as the board is committed to a figure of $35,178,402.

“I congratulate everyone on avoiding the pitfalls associated with coming in high and battling through a slash and burn budget process,” Flanagan said in introducing the budget.

BOE member Merrill Adams summarized the major initiatives in the budget, including more Common Core training for teachers, additional advanced placement classes, in house PSAT Administration, a new K-4 technology teacher, a 9th grade Chromebook initiative, music equipment leases, professional development funding, and Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) membership for BOE. That last item has been in and then removed from multiple budgets in recent years.

“This is the first time in a very long time we’ve been able to add an AP course to our high school,” said Flanagan. “We are very committed to finding ways to add back to this school district.”

Only BOE member Jeremy Renninghoff of Middlefield voted against moving the budget forward. After the meeting Renninghoff said he felt the district spent too much without results.

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