WATERTOWN — The Town Council, meeting Monday, May 4, discussed the education budget for 2020-2021, proposed at $46,841,590 or a 2.84 percent increase compared to last year. Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison explained that members of the education board were attending the virtual meeting and supported the budget, which had been formed in February before several unknown factors developed as a result of the pandemic.

Budget drivers include fixed costs such as transportation, salaries and benefits, and utilities, which increased by $45,797, $677,937, and $46,675 respectively for a total of $770,409.

The Board of Education cut the majority of these costs with retirement incentives, saving $582,852 should the negotiations with the teacher’s union be successful.

There are also savings from solar that will be operational next year and LED projects at $49,000 and $44,386 to bring that area of the budget down by $46,693.

Savings from the LED project come because the work has been paid off and savings no longer are moving toward that debt.

The adjusted increase is $94,189 and Mr. Harrison noted the long-term approach of the budget.

Variable costs include special education costs that can change throughout the year.

The district is expecting an increase in out of district costs at $610,000 for both education and transportation.

The average cost per student is $80,000.

The RISE Program is intended to build in district resources for third through fifth grade students with emotional and behavioral needs to reduce out of district costs.

Program staffing includes a social worker and special education teacher at $115,778.

Four students are anticipated to be enrolled, saving $125,000 in outplacement costs.

There is another $115,778 in variable costs related to special education personnel at Swift Middle School, including a speech teacher who will address student need across the district.

The total of variable costs is $841,556.

Dr. Harrison reviewed student enrollment to note that, while the district does not pay for the federal free or reduced lunch program, the increase from 15.4 percent to 37.3 percent over the last decade indicates a need for increased resources because students from lower incomes often need more resources.

The special education population also increased from 10.8 to 15.2 percent; many needs are met within district although the number of special education teachers has decreased from 32.3 to 30.

Dr. Harrison commented on a post-Covid experience, emphasizing the need to be proactive in addressing student need.

New positions in the budget include three armed security officers for each of the elementary schools at $45,000 each, up from the one officer shared with the elementary schools.

An officer will be at the high school during afternoon and evening events.

The education board has stressed the importance of student safety.

Due to an unfunded state mandate, requiring an additional health credit to graduate, a physical education and health teacher has been added to the budget at $46,917.

A food and consumer science high school teacher, at $46,917 would allow students to learn cooking and baking skills and offer career exposure, restoring a position cut several years ago.

Dr. Harrison said that it is important to provide options to explore interests and the position ties into the food and consumer science program in the middle school.

The last position of network coordinator is also a restoration and will support technology for staff and students.

The superintendent reminded those present of a ransomware attack that locked files and pointed out that the district is now relying on distance learning.

Currently, the district has two network coordinators responsible for more than 2,000 devices.

The new position would cost $60,508.

The presentation ended with a description of state and federal funding, which make up 26 and 2 percent of the budget, and have been flat for some time.

Seventy-two percent of the education budget comes from taxpayers.

There will be a public hearing to gather feedback on the budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 26.

Virtual access is detailed on the town web site; comments and questions may be emailed in advance of the hearing to wtnmeetings@watertownct.org.

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