By SHERIDAN CYR
The Board of Education was met with a packed room on Jan. 25 as members of the BOE continued debating the budget presented by Superintendent of Schools Timothy Connellan.
The majority of the audience came out to show support for Southington’s elementary music program, one of the cuts in question as the town enters a unique budget season with uncertainty surrounding the amount of state funding.
Dozens of high school students, parents and teachers wearing Blue Knights marching band jackets and sweatshirts approach the board for public comment.
“Instrumental music is so important in our community,” said SHS music director Sara Ossias. “If fourth and fifth grade instrumental music is cut as proposed, those students will be denied the full experience of learning music.”
Ossias said that learning to play an instrument and read sheet music aids in development of cognitive skills and auditory processing. She said that more than 500 students participate in the music programs at the high school each year, and said that might be threatened if cuts are made at the elementary level.
Band Backers president Dave Pestillo said starting instrumental music as late as sixth grade is “a mistake.”
“I picked up a pair of drumsticks in fourth grade and I haven’t put them down since,” he said.
Music program cuts are among many being considered by the BOE. Ultimately the BOE did not go forth with the cuts, but the board and administration, prior to the meeting, had to come up with a list of specific cuts to address three hypothetical budget scenarios: $1 million cut, $2 million cut and $3 million cut.
Elementary instrumental music was a potential cut in the second round of cuts, but the BOE didn’t dip into scenario two at that point in the process.
On Jan. 5, Connellan presented his proposed 2018-19 budget, which was a 3.27 percent increase from the last budget, at $97,291,762. The board went through scenario one, which offered a $1,106,303 reduction as it originally stood.
Board members have been debating the items in the first scenario, discussing each item’s impact and dollar amount. Following the thorough discussion, the board cut the superintendent’s proposal by 0.5 percent, bringing the budget down to $96,816,329.
The 2.27 percent increase is the smallest BOE increase request in years and is on par with approved budget increases in 2015-16 (2.98) and 2016-17 (2.95), but it is still a larger increase than was allowed last year (2.06).
In the first scenario, the Superintendent proposed cuts to middle school cross country coaching salaries and transportation; chaperones and event supervisors; district-wide software upgrades; new textbooks; system-wide equipment; two special projects (repairs to two-way radio repeaters and SHS electrical upgrades); the SHS Learning Academy afterschool program; and elimination of major projects and equipment with the exception of sidewalks and PCB testing.
Connellan said that some members of the public have criticized the BOE and administration for spending too much money. He shared a data report from 2017 that ranks Southington 154th in education spending per student out of 166 state districts.
He also discussed enrollment analysis and projections study that were presented to the BOE in 2017, which projected Southington student population over the next 10 years.
Of the town’s eight elementary schools, only Plantsville and South End expect a significant reduction in population. DePaolo Middle School expects a small decline, while Kennedy sees an increase. The high school should see a decrease but is projected to grow beyond the 10-year mark.
In a memo sent to parents on Jan. 24, Connellan said, “This is a direct result of the failure of the executive and the legislative branches of state government to manage the funds that the citizens of this state contribute via income tax, sales tax and various other forms of taxes and fees. The Town of Southington is well-managed and is fiscally responsible.”
“Consequently,” he said, “we will be faced with difficult decisions regarding what services we will be able to afford and therefore be able to continue to provide.”
Per the Town Charter, the BOE must present their budget to the Board of Finance for discussion during the week following the second Monday in February (Feb. 12-16). Following that session, the BOE must file their budget with the Town Clerk by March 3.
A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, March 13, 6 p.m., at DePaolo Middle School before the budget is presented to the Town Council in April.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Cyr, email her at SCyr@SouthingtonObserver.com.