By LINDSAY CAREY
The Board of Education (BOE) finalized the budget for the 2015-2016 school year, and the board unanimously approved spending $90,197,401 with a 3.59 percent increase from last year’s budget.
Director of Business and Finance Sherri DiNello presented the budget, which she crafted along with school administrators based on the year to year needs of the school system. It also includes new requests from the Board of Education in budget workshops.
Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski opened the floor for discussion on some of the new items in the 2015-2016 year budget.
Some of the major items of discussion included providing more support for the English Language Learners (ELL), more assistance in the Pupil Services department for the district, and whether or not to financially support after-school enrichment programs.
Terry Lombardi opened with an impassioned discussion regarding the English Language Learners (ELLs) within the Southington Public Schools.
Dinello invited Derynoski Elementary School Assistant Principal Kelly Nichols to share data regarding the amount of instruction time ELLs are currently receiving.
Nichols shared that only 12 percent of new ELLs are receiving one hour of English Language Service (ELS) per day, which is the recommendation by the State Department of Education for all newly identified ELL students in the school system.
Nichols explained that there has been an influx of ELLs coming into the schools system. Within the past 12 months she said the district has a received 40 additional ELLs, which are considered the high priority population of students.
Five full-time ELL tutors and one part time ELL tutor are currently servicing 105 ELLs. With 40 of those students considered high priority, district administrators were looking to this budget to add another full time tutor in order to help bridge the gap in instruction time.
According to Nichols, 37.5 percent of newly identified ELL students are receiving one hour per week of service and only 7.5 percent of that group is receiving the state recommended hour per day within a small group setting.
“We would reduce the number of students who are only getting one hour per week of service and slowly start to increase their service hours and obviously we’re trying to close that gap and get as close to one hour a day as possible,” said Nichols.
An additional full time ELL tutor would allow 12 students currently receiving one hour per week to receive two to four hours per week, and that would allow two more students to receive one hour per day.
“It may not be 100 percent of what we’re looking for, but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Board of Education member Dave Derynoski before making the motion to approve an additional full time ELL tutor to bring the total to 6.5 tutors.
The Board approved the inclusion of an additional full time ELL tutor to the 2015-2016 budget, although, Lombardi, who began the discussion, was the only one to vote ‘no’ on the item.
“I would like more,” said Lombardi.
Superintendent of Schools Timothy Connellan and the Director of Pupil Service Margaret Walsh advocated adding another Special Education coordinator to the Pupil Services department at a salary of $115,950.
Connellan referred to adding this position as “cost containment and cost prevention” with benefits across the entire district from Pre-K through age 21.
“I really believe that in the long run we will be in a situation where we will be spending fewer dollars to place students out, and I think we’ll be spending fewer dollars down the road for legal fees,” said Connellan. “We can provide some of those services that are being provided outside, inside.”
Connellan said that adding another coordinator would bring at least two students back into existing Special Education programs in the district, which would cover the new coordinator’s position by reducing out-of-district placement costs. It would not affect the budget at all.
Kennedy Middle School Principal Steven Madancy spoke in support of this telling the Board that coordinators are being “spread pretty thin”.
“It has a ripple effect on the entire organization,” said Madancy. “[As a principal] you get lengthy daily correspondences and parents are waiting for a reply, but sometimes it’s not as simple as us just replying to the email. We look for some guidance and oversight as well in certain situations. If the coordinators or the director are not available then the delay starts.”
The Superintendent said that the issue is not the quality of the staff. It’s about not having enough oversight needed for the Special Education programs while also providing assistance to administrators dealing with parents, lawyers, and suspensions.
Walsh explained how she would restructure the Pupil Services department if a new coordinator was to be added. She said that she would have one high school coordinator, one coordinator for both of the middle schools, two coordinators for preschool and elementary schools, and the final coordinator would be responsible for out-of-district placement.
Board of Education Member Terri Carmody requested that Walsh take more time to view the system as the director, because she’s only been there for three months. Carmody asked to see if she could restructure the program with the current employees before adding another position.
However, the rest of the board voted to add another Special Education coordinator to the budget.
“We as a board made a vision that Special Education mattered. It’s 25 percent of our budget and we brought in two professionals,” Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski said about Connellan and Walsh, who were both hired in 2014. “I don’t care if they were here two days or two years, if they can give us a plan and show cost avoidance and balance, we have to do it.”
The only topic of discussion that did not pass and was removed from the budget was financial support from the BOE to support enrichment opportunities.
These enrichment opportunities included a robotics program, a gardening club, and a drama club as after-school programs. Some of the schools currently have these programs, but they are run by parent or teacher volunteers and funded by grants.
Board of Education member Colleen Clark felt it was the responsibility of the schools to come and request funding for a program rather than the Board of Education handing out the money. Lombardi said she felt it inappropriate to fund enrichment opportunities when the basic needs of ELL students were not being met.
However, Johnson advocated for enrichment opportunities saying they are “a valuable part of the educational process.”
“A different value than those who are learning to speak English, but here we are having children who are learning to speak science and technology and math, so this is a different kind of language for children to learn,” said Board of Education member Patricia Johnson.
The board was seemingly split on whether or not to provide enrichment opportunities, and Chairman Goralski swung the vote, agreeing with Clark that the schools should advocate for these programs without BOE funding.