By Rob Glidden
The Board of Education managed to save its proposed all-day kindergarten program despite reductions made during the budget process, but at a price that left the officials uneasy.
The decisions made by the Board of Finance and the Town Council left the school board with about $84.2 million to work with, $1.1 million less than what they had asked for. Administrators and board members agreed that they did not want to compromise the planned improvements in school safety, technology upgrades and the all-day kindergarten. Accomplishing this required sacrifices elsewhere, including the SOAR enrichment program.
“This is a balanced budget but one that I’m embarrassed to present,” Erardi said. “I do not support any of what’s being presented this evening. What I support is the work that needs to be done.”
The board was able to deflect some of the reductions with various adjustments, including a $295,000 reduction in self-insurance funding, about $70,000 in additional Educational Cost-Sharing (ECS) funds from the state and about $125,000 worth of savings as a result of educating five special education students within the schools instead of out-placing them.
However, these items did not cover the entirety of the reductions. In addition to eliminating two full-time positions ($93,500) associated with the SOAR program, a literacy specialist at Southington High School and a district math and science coordinator will only work at the schools from January to June instead of the full school year. This resulted in savings of $68,000.
Members of the school board were disheartened by having to sacrifice another program to introduce all-day kindergarten.
“We’re asking our teachers to meet the needs of all our students,” said BOE member Patricia Queen. “How are we supposed to meet the needs of exceptional learners without the SOAR program?”
The new budget also depends on $250,000 from the supplies account, which the board typically holds back for emergencies. There was also a $239,000 line-item for “anticipated fund balance” meant to help balance the budget. Board members expressed concerns about these items and noted that if they were used now, the district had few options if other unexpected problems came up.
“We say that the state is dysfunctional and now we’re doing what they do,” said Chairman Brian Goralski. “We’re gambling with next year’s dollars.”
The board ultimately approved the reallocated budget with a 6-2 vote, with board member Patricia Johnson absent. Even those who supported the arrangement expressed frustration with this year’s budget process.
“I’m sitting here angry,” said school board member Colleen Clark. “I sat through meetings where we cut things that we didn’t want to cut. We spoke publicly about what our district needed. We’ve done our darndest and now we have to pit one program against another just to save taxpayers four dollars.”
The two members who voted against the new proposal, David Derynoski and Zaya Oshana, were hoping to come up with a different solution before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
“We still have another month,” Derynoski said. “I would like to spend more time formulating this. I cannot support this in its current form.”
Goralski said that there may be a scenario before the school year ends that could allow them to save the SOAR program, such as an influx of teacher retirements, but otherwise the officials simply had to prioritize. Fellow board member Terry Lombardi noted that all-day kindergarten was supported was the majority of parents in Southington.