As the Woodbridge Board of Education (WBOE) continues our series of articles aimed at helping the Town better understand the needs of Beecher Road School and our budgeting process, this article will provide an overview of the 2022-2023 operating budget the WBOE voted to send to the Board of Finance and the Board of Selectmen on December 20, 2021 and revised and resubmitted on January 28, 2022. The initial budget submitted to the Town reflected a 13.52% increase over the current budget year, while the revised budget reflects a 9.21% increase. Most of the cost savings the WBOE was able to realize in the revised budget can be attributed to the administration’s successful efforts to identify more cost-effective healthcare benefits and confirmed lower rates for utility expenses.
For the last seven years, the Beecher Road School budget has had yearly increases often well below the rate of inflation. During these same years, as inflation rose, so too did the costs of utilities, healthcare benefits, supplies, insurance, vendor contracts, and other purchased services. Special education needs also increased within the district requiring Beecher to increase the number of specialized certified and non-certified staff. To account for the discrepancy between the approved budget and the needs of the district, cuts were made year after year and staff had to be redistributed from general education to special education to meet the growing demands. Budget funding for books, classroom supplies, technology, professional development, staff positions, and staff support were all cut time and time again. This has led many community members to express concern regarding the lack of programming and curriculum advancement being offered at Beecher Road School, investments other comparable districts have been making for the last several years. Fundraisers and the Parent Teacher Organization have helped soften this impact; however, with COVID, even these funds are being depleted. In addition, COVID has exacerbated both the educational and mental health needs of our students, and we now have children on waitlists for these services. We can no longer continue to expect the school to have a minimal budget increase and provide the high-quality education our community values and our children deserve.
At the most basic level, Beecher’s budget is comprised of fixed and variable costs. Most of the budget (95%) is based on contractual obligations and other fixed costs – these include salaries, employee benefits, and purchasing services (e.g., utilities, bus transportation, fuel, insurance).
One of the more significant increases in this year’s budget includes salary increases for staff that were agreed upon through prior contract negotiations, with some determined through arbitration. The WBOE would be remiss if we did not take a moment to recognize that the heart of Beecher and the daily stewards of our children’s education are Beecher’s teachers and staff. As a Board, we support our teachers and staff and will meet our legal obligations to compensate them for their dedication and service to our children.
This budget also includes additional staffing positions. As outlined below, these positions are either required by law, needed due to increased enrollment, or necessary to meet the mental health needs of our children. One special education teacher, who is currently funded through short-term COVID relief, will need to be paid for by the district, and an additional Kindergarten teacher will be needed based on projected enrollment. Similarly, a 0.5 custodian currently funded under COVID relief will need to be paid for by the district to assure health and sanitation needs continue to be adequately addressed. In addition, Beecher will add 1.2 social workers which will bring us to a total of 1.7 social workers, still below the National Association of Social Workers’ recommendation of 1 social worker for every 250 students. Additionally, Beecher will require 0.1 psychologist to meet the growing demand for special education testing. During what the U.S. Surgeon General has called a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth, Beecher must ensure that we care for the mental health of the children in our community.
In addition, the budget adds a needed STEAM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Arts/Math) Specialist. Expansion of technology and engineering lessons for students across all grade levels is critical to ensuring that our children are prepared to enter secondary education and eventually the workforce, which are increasingly focused on STEAM related areas of study. In addition, this position will offer direct intervention for students below grade-level standards in science and math and assure standards-based science experiences across all grade levels.
Finally, Beecher will reinvest in our teacher assistants (TAs). In 2018, the WBOE made the financially sound decision to significantly reduce outsourcing special education services. However, to meet the one-on-one needs of this population, the Kindergarten TAs who provide instructional support were downsized from 1 per classroom to less than .5 per classroom, and other general education TAs were reallocated to special education. Without this classroom-based support, Beecher is seeing a steady increase in the number of children requiring early intervention in language and math, growing from 48 in 2019-2020 to 85 this school year, with additional children waiting for services. This aligns with findings from a recent study published in Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis and cited by the Brookings Institute which found “TAs in the state’s elementary schools had positive effects on student test scores in both reading and math—with the largest, most consistent, and most robust effects in reading.” Without TAs for general education support, our children are suffering. The budget put forth to the Town includes 10 additional TAs—4 for special education which are legally required and 6 to begin to replace the 7 TAs that have steadily been removed from the general education classrooms since 2018.
The remaining 5% of Beecher’s budget is variable; however, by no means discretionary. These line items include funding for computer equipment, furniture, instructional and office supplies, custodial supplies, books, legally mandated professional development, legal services, and substitutes. These items are essential for school operations.
The WBOE is aware that there is a narrative among some in the community that Beecher has done well with minimal budget increases in recent years and that at times Beecher has even been able to return a small amount of money to the Town. This narrative could not be further from the truth. School staff have worked hard to stretch these limited budgets, but this isn’t working. In fact, with rising costs in healthcare, utilities, and other areas Beecher’s budget has essentially been cut year-after-year. We must reinvest in our school.
The WBOE has also been told that residents who do not have children currently in the school are not willing to make this investment. Again, while we do not believe that most residents feel this way, we would argue that everyone should care about the quality of education at Beecher since there is no more direct tie to our property values than the quality of the education we provide as a district. We also want to recognize that many people in our community are seeking more educational and enrichment offerings to keep our students competitive. Appreciating the fiscal climate of our community, these offerings have not been included in this budget.
We are now at a tipping point. If we are required to cut the budget further, such decreases would directly impact students and teachers. The next tier of cuts would ask the Board of Education to increase class sizes while decreasing TA support, cut a significant amount of the remaining professional development provided to our certified staff, cut curriculum development further, and significantly cut the funds for classroom resources. The direction these cuts would take the district is the opposite of the direction we envision for Beecher. We should be talking about growing our curriculum and resources to ensure our graduates meet the expectations of higher education.
The Board is asking the Town to appreciate the need to invest in our school so that it can continue to maintain and strive to improve the level of quality education we pride ourselves in offering our children. Within a time of escalating needs and a pandemic, we must ensure that Beecher maintains its excellence and commitment to our Town’s children.
By Lynn Piascyk, Maria Madonick, Sarah Beth DelPrete, Jay Dahya, Brooke Hopkins, Jeff Hughes, David Ross, Mike Strambler, and Erin Williamson