Last week, the Southington Board of Finance heard the Board of Education’s budget request.
The BOE budget proposal has a 3.1% increase, or about $3 million. BOE chair Terri Carmody, Republican, said the board feels the budget request is “fair and balanced.”
“This proposal allows the community of Southington to fill its obligation and continue to provide a high quality education to every eligible student,” said Carmody. “We know the Board of Finance has the responsibility of balancing the needs of this community, including public education and all of the valuable and necessary services that our friends and neighbors have come to expect.”
Superintendent of Schools Tim Connellan said the board has a statutory obligation to provide an education to students of Southington. “I feel our budget is reasonably balanced and fulfills our legal responsibility (as determined by the state) while acknowledging fiscal resources are limited.”
One of the major topics of discussion presented in the BOE’s budget presentation is the funding of special education. In the operating budget, special education accounts for almost 27% of the allocation.
A large chunk of the total percentage increase also is driven by special education.
Regular education represents 44% of the increase or $1.52 million. Special education accounts for 43% of the increase or $1.48 million. Major projects and equipment represents 13% of the increase or $427,620.
“There are a lot of pressures on school systems that go along with the cost of special education, and it is something that is absolutely necessary to meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable students,” said Connellan. The school district is looking to expand special education programs that keep students in-district, and therefore, save money. The average cost to the schools for one out-of-district placement is around $130,000.
Connellan reported that numbers of students needing special education programs is increasing as a statewide and even national trend.
“It is important to note that they are students first and foremost, and the disability is secondary,” said Connellan. “We have an increasing need for programming for students who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. We are hoping to keep students in-district, and provide quality services to them. Down the line, this will save us money.”
Connellan said the increase in special education costs comes from several directions. Identifying and diagnosing such issues is more accurate. In addition, students are faced with more significant and more complex issues on a day to day basis.
For example, Connellan said, the autism spectrum is just that—a spectrum—ranging from a student who may be nonverbal, to a student who is high-achieving.
Keeping students in-district is a priority, and that includes students in regular education, not just in special education, said school official. Administration reported that for the first time in several years, magnet school enrollment has decreased.
“We had 122 Southington students enrolled in magnet schools last year, and this year, 109 students attended magnet schools,” said finance director Sherri Dinello.
“It costs the district anywhere from $4,400 to $5,800 per student to send them to a magnet school, versus around $15,000 per student enrolled in Southington Public Schools.”
Dinello said one of the major magnet schools in Connecticut recently stopped offering partial-day programs, and that has deterred students from choosing to attend.
“In the past, students were drawn to that half-day program because they could still participate in our athletics and other offerings,” said Dinello. “Now, more students are taking advantage of in-district programs such as Project Lead the Way.”
Connellan said a personal goal of his is to increase communication to the community and highlight SPS’s accomplishments and positive programs in hopes of keeping more students in-district.
The BOF will have time to review the BOE budget request thoroughly and make changes as they see fit.
A public hearing on the whole budget will be held on Monday, March 2 at 7 p.m. at DePaolo Middle School.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at News@SouthingtonObserver.com.