School board trims superintendent's budget proposal

After debating several hours, members of the Milford Board of Education voted this week to cut a little more than $500,000 from the school superintendent’s $90.02 million request for the next school year. That brings her total budget plan to less than a 1% increase over the current year, which may be the lowest in several decades.

Anticipating a lot of changes in the following year’s budget, some board members said they really want to hold the line on spending in 2014-15, and that’s why they pushed for additional reductions. The 2015-16 is expected to include a reconfiguration of grades and moving of classrooms, which could prove costly.

Board member Tracy Casey’s original motion Wendesday night was to decrease School Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Feser’s budget $611,980. Her cut list included $5,000 in homebound services; $5,000 in summer school costs; $287,000 for substitute teachers, eliminating a proposed pay hike from $90 to $100 a day at the high school and from $75 to $90 at the other schools; $49,000 for greeters at the middle school, $5,000 for part-time clerk wages; $40,000 in retirement severance; $10,000 in contractual services; $80,000 in transportation costs; $30,000 in gasoline, and $100,000 for special education costs.

“We appreciate the work you put into [the budget], but we think it could be lower,” Casey told school administrators.

But administrators had some strong objection to that initial cut list. Chief Operations Officer James Richetelli Jr. had an issue with cutting $30,000 in gas money.

“If you cut $30,000, we will not have enough to pay for gas,” Richetelli said.

Richetelli also had an issue with Casey’s proposal to cut $80,000 from transportation, which would have meant reducing two school buses. He already cut one bus when the administration made the proposal, and he said three buses altogether would amount to a reduction of nine bus runs.

“I do not think we will save nine bus runs,” Richetelli said. “To blindly say we can cut three buses — that’s extremely aggressive.”

After much discussion, the board voted to cut one bus from the superintendent’s proposal instead of two, and to put the $30,000 back in for gasoline. After a lot of discussion about special education funding, the board voted to add the $100,000 back into the spending plan, but to meet soon to discuss the current special education budget. Director of Pupil Personnel Services Susan Kelleher said that since October, seven special education students moved into the district. Several of those have costly out-of-district education costs.

Casey said she wondered why the administration didn’t share that information sooner.

Board member Laura Fucci said she really wants greeters in the middle schools. Greeters were added to the elementary schools last year, and they worked out so well that Feser wanted them installed in the middle schools. The greeter’s job is to let visitors into the school and direct them to where they need to go.

Casey said, however, that there are other people in the school who can do that job. Fucci, though she really wanted the greeters, said she would vote for the cut list anyway, even though the greeters were being eliminated.

Some board members thought the budget was all set after the list of cuts was approved and were ready to pack up and go home, but several other motions were made, keeping them at the books a bit longer.

Chris Saley made a motion to add $240,000 to the spending plan to put two more preschool classes in the system. One classroom exists, and the superintendent’s proposal calls for two more preschool classes. So with Saley’s plan, there would be five preschool classrooms.

“One reason I’m very passionate is because my kids went through it, and I saw the profound effect it had on them,” Saley said.

He said he worries that many children don’t have the support, or their parents don’t have the money to pay for preschool.

Assistant Supt. Michael Cummings was torn, as was School Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Feser. They didn’t object to a board member wanting to spend more on preschool, but they said adding those classes would change the scope of the preschool program, and the administration hasn’t talked about that or put any kind of plan in place.

Chairman Susan Glennon, who said the board will be talking about preschool programming in coming months, said the move would “be putting the cart before the horse.”

Saley failed to get enough support for that idea and his motion failed. Glennon added, however, that the matter is going to be discussed in the future.

And it wasn’t over yet.

Board member John DeRosa proposed his own cut list, which consisted of $52,834 that had been proposed for additional media aids in the lower level grades, and $13,000 that would have made a four-day-a-week guidance counselor at The Academy a five-day-a-week counselor.

The administration had asked for four media aides, who would help with technical support that officials said is important as Common Core State Standards move students toward taking assessment tests on computers. DeRosa said he didn’t think that kind of technical education needed to start in kindergarten, and so he proposed cutting two of those positions. While several board members disagreed with him, his motion passed 5 to 4. Member Heidi Gold-Dworkin abstained from the vote.

With both cut lists passed, the total reduction to the superintendent’s budget plan is $507,814: Her original proposal of $90.02 went to $89.51 million, and Feser’s initial plan for a 1.3% budget increase now stands at a .75% increase.

When she presented her plan last week, Feser said it had one of the smallest increases in a decade. School spokesman Kathy Bonetti said that is certainly true, and added that a retired school official told her he believes it is the smallest increase in several decades.

“It’s very low from our perspective,” Feser said, adding that it isn’t an exciting budget because it primarily continues to build on improvements that started in the past few years.

Those changes and improvements revolve around moving toward Common Core Standards, which are revised nationwide standards about what a student should know at each grade level. Moving toward Common Core Standards involves rewriting curriculum and improving technology.

“Sometimes in a budget you have revolutionary kinds of things,” Feser said. “This budget is really about staying the course.”

To help offset various increases and keep the overall increase low, Feser had identified almost $1.8 million in savings within the budget, most notably a reduction of 32.2 staff positions.

She said staff size can be reduced because of declining enrollment, and those cuts can save $1.36 million. She is proposing the following reductions: 15.2 teaching positions; 14 para professional jobs, which will include 10 from special education and four from regular education duties; two secretaries and one sign language interpreter, which she said is not needed.

This marks the beginning of the budget process, which wraps up in May. In the next few months, the Board of Finance will hold a public hearing on the proposed city and school budgets and then vote on a budget that it sees as appropriate. Next, the Board of Aldermen will take a look at the finance board- approved plan, hold another public hearing, and then review and debate until the board adopts its version — the final version — of the city spending plan for 2014-15.