BERLIN — Cuts to special education, athletics and teaching staff were laid out by the Board of Education as its members responded to steep cuts to the school budget by the Town Council and Board of Finance.
"Unfortunately this is where we are. It's a sad day for us. We've had people speak and say stand your ground, we don't have ground to stand on ... because we don't have control after we send the budget out,” Board of Education Chairman Matthew Tencza. “We only get to make these decisions and there's not one good decision on there. Every single one of those decisions impacts the students at the end."
After the school board passed its $46.2 million budget request in February, a 6 percent increase in funding over the current year, the Board of Finance voted to remove half of the $2.6 million increase, followed by another $400,000 reduction by the Town Council. That leaves the district with a $900,000 increase over the current year, which school officials say is not even enough to cover contractual raises for employees and an increase in special education costs.
A referendum on the school and municipal budgets is scheduled for April 30. Combined the budgets call for a $2.2 million increase in spending. The corresponding mill rate increase of 1.36 mills would bring the rate to 33.86 mills, a $238 increase in taxes on a home assessed at $175,000.
The largest reduction the school board discussed is laying off at least six teachers for $500,000 in savings.
Superintendent of Schools Brian Benigni said that with those layoffs, the district would average five teacher reductions a year for the past six years, bringing the number to 258 from 286 in the 2014-15 school year.
The school board is also proposing a $125,000 reduction in administrative costs. One possibility is eliminating one of two assistant principals at McGee Middle School, bringing the number of administrators across the district to 17, plus a human resources director shared with Town Hall.
The school board also cut the $272,000 in funding for the Effective School Solutions program in the hope that a surplus at the end of the current fiscal year would allow the program to continue. The board has been using surpluses to fund the program over the past three years.
"It crushes me to pull this out again, for the third consecutive year, for a program that we've continued to run and we know it's brought so much value to the students,” Tencza said.
Other proposals include eliminating interscholastic sports at McGee Middle School, possibly replacing them with intramurals.
Board member Jake Fisher said that the athletics programs impact a large number of students for a relatively low cost compared to the other items being considered. Tencza said he would prefer cutting athletics to more teaching positions.
"I'd rather take those athletics away at the middle school than cut three or four more teachers, or three or more support staff," Tencza said.
Paid parking would also be implemented at Berlin High School at a possible price of $100 per year. Activity fees for clubs are being considered as a way to offset cuts to teacher stipends for overseeing the clubs.
School board member Traci Sisti worried that the cuts would discourage families from moving into the town and would push new graduates of the school system away.
"If we keep doing this... we're not supporting our children; they're not going to support this town,” she said. "Our kids aren't going to want to come back and raise their kids in this town if we don't support them.”