Building the town budget - part three

WOODBRIDGE - The Woodbridge Board of Education (WBOE) voted unanimously to approve its 2002-03 budget request at a Special Meeting Monday night. The budget, to fund the operation of Beecher Road North and South Schools for the coming fiscal year, is now set to be presented to the Boards of Selectmen (BOS) and Finance (BOF) on February 6 for their approval or modification. Once it passes this hurdle, it will become part of the town budget that will be presented to residents at the Annual Town Meeting May 20.

Spending on the elementary school district's operating budget constitutes nearly one third of the town's overall operating budget, with the Amity district (grades 7-12) accounting for slightly more than another third, and all other town agencies dividing the remainder.

The WBOE's new 02-03 budget request totals $9.23 million, up from the current 01-02 budget total of $8.86 million. This new budget request represents an increase of about 4.16 percent over last year's final approved budget. The BOS and BOF had asked all town departments to prepare budgets with zero percent increases outside of contracted salary obligations. Contractual salaries and associated benefits included in the WBOE's budget submission amount to just under $7.2 million, leaving $2.03 million in so-called discretionary spending, which is up 3.25 percent from last year's figure of $1.96 million. This requested increase over the town's zero mandate amounts to roughly $64,000 in new spending .

Last year, the WBOE's 01-02 budget request was reduced by the BOF by $287,000. After making adjustments in spending earlier in the school year to absorb this reduction, so far the WBOE has run in the black, but finances are uncharacteristically tight. Earlier this month the WBOE was notified by the BOF that if it should run into red ink at fiscal year-end, the school district will receive additional money from the town's contingency fund to cover an unexpected increase in legal fees stemming from teacher contract negotiations this past fall. However, in making this promise to the WBOE, the BOF also expressed its confidence that the school would be able to balance out the year as usual, without this additional influx of funds.

Projected enrollment

The WBOE has built their 02-03 budget request on an estimated enrollment of 949 students next year in grades pre-kindergarten through six. The current year's budget anticipated 1,010 students in planning done last year at this time, but the two schools currently have a combined enrollment of 967. School officials now estimate that this number will decline by eighteen students further, after taking into consideration this year's large sixth grade class of 148 students graduating in June and preliminary estimates that put the anticipated incoming KG enrollment at 120 for September. An estimate of an additional net gain of ten students is projected in other grades as well.

If this projection bears out, the Woodbridge School District will see its high enrollment mark of 1,002 students, reached in June 2000, recede from view — for the time being at least. All demographic projections for the remainder of the decade show enrollment increases on the horizon again, even after taking into account the current projected short-term decline. The latest mid-range projections from the State Department of Education predict that enrollment will rise again to just under the 1,000 mark by 2010.

New initiatives

Included in the Board's budget request is funding for a few high-priority, new initiatives, including an evaluation of the Resource Based Learning curriculum in use by the district for the past sixteen years. Superintendent Peter Madonia described the Board's expectation that the proposed evaluation "by an independent outside consultant, will result in a report that presents important data and information to reflect an assessment of the quality, success and value of this method of teaching and learning." The Board intends to spend $20,000 to conduct this evaluation, which it expects to see concluded by next fiscal year's end. The results of the study will then be shared with members of the BOS and BOF who have voiced concern over the value of this instructional method in past meetings with the WBOE.

Also receiving fiscal attention in the new school budget is technology purchase and support services. Currently, Beecher technology center teaching staff provides tech support and computer systems management services between instructing classes of students. The new budget would provide funding to out-source these crucial services to the Area Cooperative for Educational Services (ACES), which has recently expanded its capacity to offer such service.

Additionally, the WBOE is seeking to recover lost ground in computer equipment purchases suffered in the past two years as this portion of the budget has absorbed overall funding cutbacks. Next year, of the district's 205 total computers meant for student use, 181 — or roughly 88 percent — will be five years old or more, a standard reference point to evaluate the obsolescence of technology. The new budget proposal seeks $33,000 in funding to replace some of the oldest models in use at Beecher with the acquisition of new iMac computers.