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.
Only board 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.
Superintendent Kathryn Veronesi described the budget as responsive to the community. “You have told me, ‘We want to be great again. Our greatness will be based on our willingness to be courageous in programming, resources, and people.”
Overall, the proposed budget contains a net reduction of 10.2 positions, including one special education position, four instructional assistant positions, and a part-time 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.
Much of the 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.
Gwen Wirger said 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 10 years ago from a town with lower taxes, told the audience, “I’m fine with paying taxes for what I’m getting... 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.”
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 that 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 to 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 and that the increase, while still within the guidelines, was significant.
Before the board voted to move the budget forward, Chair Kerrie Flanagan directed the administrative team to search for a way to address those concerns. Any adjustments proposed in the coming weeks will involve cuts, as the board is committed to a figure of $35,178,402.
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 membership. 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,” Flanagan said.
The next BOE meeting will be on April 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Korn School.