Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, that seems to be the motto for an unusually high budget request from the Woodbridge Elementary School District for the 2022-23 school year. The Board of Education at its December 20 meeting unanimously approved a budget for the 2022-23 school year that represents a 13.5% increase in expenditures over this year’s budget. The total request is for $17.6 million, up from $15.5 million this year.
“We are looking at this budget as a correction,” said board member Maria Madonick after hearing the superintendent’s presentation. The town needs to provide its schools with the resources they need, she said, including personnel. “They are overloaded [with challenges],” she said about this school year. “This budget helps to correct some of those deficits.”
The main budget drivers are salaries (12.6%), which include a number of new positions, and medical insurance costs (18.3% ). The basic salary increases for the certified classroom teachers, a contract that was negotiated three years ago and ended in arbitration, is 1.25%. However, coupled with step increases and additional teaching- and support staff, the total salary increase is in the double-digits. “Education is a people-intensive business,” said School Supt. Dr. Johnathan Budd when he presented the numbers.
In terms of teaching staff, the projected budget provides for an additional kindergarten teacher, based on enrollment projections for the ’22-’23 school year; an additional special services teacher, a position that already exists this year, but was grant funded; and an additional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) teacher.
The school administration also made the case for an additional social worker and for an additional part-time psychologist. The current social worker, who holds a half-time position, supports 30 students with a range of intensive support needs, said Special Services Director Cheryl Kiesel. As for psychologists, the school employs 2.5 now, but with increased need for services, the budget would provide an additional .1 position.
To support both teachers and students, Dr. Budd plans to hire 10 additional Teacher Assistants (TAs), of which four will be mandated, to provide services for students with special needs. The other six would be assigned to general education support. Teacher Assistants are “neither supplementary nor ancillary,” Dr. Budd said. Rather, they are an essential part of helping students learn independently and provide both academic and behavioral support, he said.
As part of his budget presentation, Dr. Budd showed a graph to illustrate how the number of TAs in the last few years had shifted from general education to special education. Currently the school has 6.5 TAs for 43 classrooms. Adding six additional TAs will get the district closer to where it was five years ago, when the faculty had the support of 15 TAs.
The decision in 2018 to bring outplaced students with special needs back into the building did indeed produce significant savings for the district. But it contributed to that shift of TAs. It also presented a challenge to find appropriate classroom facilities. As a result, there are multiple teaching stations in The Commons and in the Rotunda. Given that the building is used more intensely, the school will need an additional half-time custodian.
Other increases are caused by general inflationary pressures, such as for materials and supplies (+12.2%), transportation and fuel costs, and heat and electricity. The line item for heat, for example, is up by 41%, from $179K to $253,000.
The budget also includes some building-related expenses, namely the design phase for roof replacements. The roof project is actually part of the town’s capital plan for this year, and was to be funded as part of a bonding package, which did not move forward. So instead, the district budgeted $13,600 for the roof design in its 2022-23 operating budget and added the actual work to the capital plan. It asks for full replacement of the K Wing ($337,000) and D Wing/library roofs ($350,000), and the work would be performed in the summer of 2023, with the total cost spread between two fiscal years.
The capital plan for 2022-23 also includes flooring replacement ($141, 855) and planning for a potential building reorganization, repurposing and expansion ($125,000). The Board of Education in the fall of 2021 established an ad hoc capital plan committee to look at the building needs going forward. Similarly, the district budgeted for potential needed upgrades of its mechanicals ($20,000) and for network wiring ($20,000).
The superintendent pointed to several programs that are not funded in this budget, but should be considered long-term goals, such as additional English Language Learner support; additional interventionists and curriculum experts; additional music for strings/band for grades 3 and up; additional services for talented and gifted students; and possibly an additional world language option for the intermediate grades. “Such options are available in various districts to which Woodbridge compares,” he pointed out.
Board of Education members unanimously supported the proposed school budget. Board Chairwoman Lynn Piascyk thanked her fellow board members for their support for the school, and for their respect for the taxpayers. She emphasized that the district administration would continue to re-adjust the numbers over time, for instance whether the additional kindergarten teacher can be filled from within.
“I want to assure the town leaders and the community that our board and our administrative team are constantly looking at (the budget),” she said. “When we vote on this budget we are doing what we truly believe is best for the school and at the same time respect for the taxpayer. I feel very passionate about this. We have a great place here at Beecher Road School, and we want to continue making it great. If we believe there is something we can cut from the budget, I believe we will do it.”
For example, the board asked the superintendent and the interim Business Manager, Richard Huot, to investigate the question whether joining a bigger medical insurance pool might reduce the jumps in insurance costs imposed on the district. The district is in the insurance pool with the town employees. Another suggestion made by Jay Dahya, who chairs the board’s Finance Committee, was to maybe create a reserve fund for special education, so the district would be less vulnerable to the unpredictable financial impact.
Board member Brooke Hopkins pointed out that Beecher students did very well on standardized tests, and praised the teachers for making that possible under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. She expressed hope that the board — and by extension the town — will support the teachers with regard to hiring TAs.
Board member Mike Strambler pointed out that the school was understaffed with regards to the social worker. “It’s important for us to have the resources to support kids and families,” he said.
As for the teacher’s compensation, it consists of a percentage increase coupled with step increases for the first 13 years of teaching. The steps, therefore, raise the total salaries paid out to the younger teachers as they gain experience. However, they do not apply to long-term teachers. The current package was negotiated three years ago and ended in arbitration. The result was a three-year contract:
- for the 2020-21 school year: a general wage increase of 1.25%, plus an estimated increment cost of 2.18%, for a total cost of 3.43%;
- for the 2021-22 school year, a general wage increase of 0%, plus an estimated increment cost of 2.30%, for a total cost of 2.30%; and
- for the 2022-23 school year, a general wage increase of 1.25%, plus an estimated increment cost of 2.03%, for a total cost of 3.28%.
Dr. Budd pointed out that the further out the year is from the award issuance date, in this case October of 2019, the more approximate the increment cost will be. The next round of negotiations is slated to start this summer.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent