The Woodbridge School District is asking for a 5.77 percent budget increase for the 2019-20 school year, in part to deal with the continued influx of new students at Beecher Road School. “This is not a typical budget,” warned School Superintendent Robert Gilbert when he presented his funding request at a joint meeting of the Boards of Finance and Selectmen. “But it represents what we need to maintain the quality, depth and breadth of our program.”
The proposed operating budget adds up to $15.5 million, up from the current $14.6 million, for an increase of $847,000. About 55.5% of that amount goes toward funding for regular education; 44.5% for special education.
Enrollment is predicted to reach 868 students next fall which represents an increase of more than 20% over the course of the last ten years. Demographers project the upward trend to continue in the next five years, bringing the total number of students to 939 by 2023-24.
Gilbert therefore included a new position for a full-time classroom teacher in the 2019-20 budget ($82,769), and projects two further additions in subsequent years. He plans to open another first-grade classroom, in order to adhere to the recommended class sizes. Currently the guidelines call for 17-19 students per classroom in grades K—3; and 19-21 students in grades 4, 5 and 6. Some classrooms already are at or above the upper limit of those guidelines.
“To reduce the budget means increasing class size,” said Board of Education member Steve Fleischman in support of the budget request. Low class sizes are part of what makes Beecher attractive to young families, he said.
In addition to the classroom teacher, the budget calls for a half-time school psychologist, and a full-time teaching assistant; also 1.5 special education teacher positions. Back in 2006, 72 students received special services, which were delivered by 11 teachers. Currently, 94 students are receiving instruction by 9.5 teachers, for a student/teacher ratio of almost 10 to 1.
Special education needs have increased state-wide, Gilbert said, not just in numbers, but in intensity. More students are being recommended for one-on-one time. The school tries to meet the needs of most of its students and avoid outplacement, which is expensive not only in tuition, but also transportation. Even so, in most years, outplacement expenses were higher than budgeted, the superintendent said.
Even though the proposed budget would increase the teaching staff, it reduces a half-time position for an accounts-payable clerk in the business office. The budget also seeks to recoup some savings by seeking shared services such as sharing transportation for out-placements; partnering with Amity for IT support; cost-sharing with the Extended Day Program for the school resource officer; and continuation of the retirement incentive plan.
The budget keeps in place the current administrative structure with a superintendent, a principal, an assistant principal and special education director. It does not provide for an additional assistant principal or curriculum coordinator, although curriculum review is being done on an ongoing basis, during the summer or after school hours. The budget also does not allow to hire an additional part-time music teacher to introduce a string program at the school.
During his presentation, School Superintendent Gilbert also pointed out that last spring the Board of Finance cut $50,000 from the Beecher budget. This has put the district behind even before the school year started. Without that $50,000 hole, the budget increase would be 5.4%, he said.
Finance Board Chairman Matt Giglietti was skeptical that the townspeople would accept an increase of this magnitude. “That’s ¾ of a mill for every tax payer,” he said. The increase would add $255 to a tax bill for any house assessed at $300,000; or $300 for any house assessed for $400,000. “When this hits the news, I think people are going to be very upset,” he said. “I don’t question your needs,” he said, “but I don’t see how this is sustainable.”
Going forward, the Board of Selectmen will look at the budget requests of town departments and make a recommendation to the Board of Finance. The finance board is scheduled to meet March 7 to finalize a budget proposal.
Beecher Road School continues to offer unique learning opportunities, such as creating a weekly news program; the Learn to Swim program; and after-school enrichment including the Poetry Guild, the Math Olympiad, Spanish Club and open tech lab.
“Beecher Road School is recognized as a school of excellence in our region and there is great sense of pride in our school throughout the Woodbridge community,” the superintendent said when he presented the operating budget to the Board of Education in December. Among the achievements he named “strong student achievement levels in Language Arts, math and science as measured by state assessment.”
BRS students earned top ranking in the state math awards in the Continental Mathematics League and nationally in the National Math Olympiad competition. Two fourth graders were regional winners in the Euclidean Division of the Continental Math League.
The concert band took first place in competition; gold and platinum awards for Jazz, string and choir ensembles. Robotics teams also came home with awards: The Beecher Space Surfers won Core Values Award; Beecher Hawks won the Science Project Award; and the Orbiting Owls won the State Championship in robot design.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town Correspondent
Correction: The Beecher Space Surfers won Core Values Award. The team was misidentified in the print version of this article. The WTN regrets the error.