By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent
To ensure the continued high standard of the educational program at Beecher Road School into the future, the Woodbridge Board of Education is proposing a budget that represents a 3.8% increase over the current school year. The increase is due primarily to fulfill contractual obligations, in particular salary increases and benefits, Woodbridge School Superintendent Dr. Guy Stella told the town leaders when he made his budget presentation at a joint meeting of the boards of Selectmen and Finance earlier this month.
The total budget is for $13.5 million, which includes a dollar increase just shy of $500,000 over this year’s budget. Eighty-eight percent of that increase will be needed to pay the negotiated salary increases. The 2015-16 school year is the third and last year of the current teachers contract, and negotiations for a new contract are being scheduled.
In spite of increasing enrollment, the superintendent is not asking for additional teachers at this time, although that may change as the number of enrolled students change, he told the joint boards. The budget as presented — and approved by the Board of Education — does request additional hours for a part-time teacher’s assistant and a cafeteria aide.
Beecher Road School currently serves 796 students, and Dr. Stella predicts 816 for the 2015-16 school year. With staffing levels as they are, the school would still be able to meet the recommended class size limits, Dr. Stella said; that’s 18 students for grades K-3 and 20 students in the upper grades. The school currently employs 73.5 certified teachers, of which 42 are classroom teachers. The others are specialists, such as for Language Arts, PE and Health, music and art, math, science and English as a Second Language.
Over the past seven years, twelve teachers have taken advantage of an early retirement incentive, a program that saved the district close to a million dollars, Dr. Stella said. It also helped reduce the large number of teachers approaching retirement. Even with the incentive in place, about 50% of the district’s teachers have 16 years of experience or more. “If we didn’t do it, it would have been 60%,” he said. “It is good to have people who have experience,” he said, adding, “but we want to keep people at all levels”.
The proposed budget will allow the school to function at the same level of quality, which has earned it the attribute of an “excelling school,” with a strong academic curriculum, a balanced literacy program, intense science program and comprehensive new math initiative, he said. It also supports state-of-the-art technology, a Talented and Gifted program and a multi-age program. “This budget will help us prepare our students for the future,” Dr. Stella said. It is also designed to allow the district to navigate several challenges, including state mandates, the continuing building upgrade, evolving technology and increasing enrollment. It also supports reasonable class sizes, maintains an updated curriculum, moves forward with increasingly differentiated instruction and keeps the focus on challenging all children.
Keeping up with technology: Calling technology “the pen and paper” of our times, Beecher technology director Rick Wood presented the needs for computer upgrades as part of the three-year technology plan at the Board of Finance in January.
IPads are becoming increasingly important tools for students to access information, sort data and create and store their work, in particular in the context of individualized instruction. Fifth and sixth graders already have an assigned iPad, and the district is planning to purchase 110 additional iPads for the fourth grades.
Younger grades also work with the mobile computers, however they share the pads installed on carts which are being wheeled into the classrooms for certain instructional units. People worry putting technology in the hands of young children, Wood said in his presentation, but overall the school has not had any problem in that respect. By teaching children to be responsible, that risk can by minimized, he said. In the last four years since the introduction of the iPads, only four were broken, with damaged screens, he said. Desktop computers on the other hand are being phased out in favor of the mobile devices. For now the iPads stay at school, Wood said, adding that in the future, it may become a constant companion, available for homework and continuing school – home connection. “We teach the students to become responsible users, creative users,” he said, “and not become dependent on it”.
The capital plan for 2015-16 also includes $25,000 for an infrastructure upgrade installing a 40 gigabit cable this summer, while the ceilings are open for the school construction project. As more and more students tap into the network at the same time, the school will need an upgrade in the near future.
The total budget request for technology is $135,000, in line with the previous years. Woodbridge Board of Education Chairman Margaret Hamilton also thanked the town for its investment in technology over the years, saying it has paid off.
Hamilton, who recently attended a conference of the state Association of Boards of Education, said many districts are scrambling to get technology in place before the new Common Core test which will be administered using computer stations. Beecher students will be taking the test using technology that they are comfortable with, she said.