Region 16 school board backs $36.77 million budget

Included in the Region 16 school board’s approved $36.77 million budget are cuts to the music and culinary arts programs at Woodland Regional High School. A referendum on the budget will be held May 3.

BEACON FALLS — After a lengthy public hearing and some last-minute cuts, the Region 16 Board of Education approved a $36.77 million budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

However, it will be the voters of Beacon Falls and Prospect who will have the final say at a referendum.

The $36.77 budget increases school spending by $147,579 or 0.41 percent over the current school budget.

“This budget is really a getting-through budget,” said Superintendent of Schools James Agostine, who presented the budget during a public hearing Wednesday night at Woodland Regional High School.

Although the budget increases spending by $147,579 over the current school budget, Beacon Falls and Prospect taxpayers will have to pay more than that in new money to compensate for a loss of revenue.

Shortly before the hearing, school officials learned that the state plans to cut a total of $486,601 from special education and transportation grants to the district.

“The revenue side of the budget can do some real damage to us,” Agostine said. “It’s something that we just can’t control.”

To make up for the loss in revenue, the budget means Beacon Falls and Prospect would have to pay a total of $520,621 in new money.

The budget increases Beacon Falls’ net education cost $141,809 or 1.55 percent to $9.27 million. Prospect’s net education cost would increase $378,812 or 2.61 percent to $14.9 million.

School officials took several measures in an attempt to reach a zero percent increase, including implementing an early retirement package for faculty and refinancing some bonds.

However, Agostine said, “It doesn’t come close to offsetting the increase in costs for operating the district next year.”

The budget includes the elimination of the equivalent of 13.5 full-time positions, worth about $721,000.

School officials said the majority of the positions cut will be eliminated through attrition. But, the cuts will include layoffs. The board voted, following the public hearing, to cut one paraprofessional and one computer aide from Long River Middle School. It was felt that these positions could be cut due to declining enrollment.

Agostine said, in an interview the day after the hearing, that these positions would mean layoffs. He said, though, that it might not be the people in the positions currently who are laid off due to seniority rules.

Out of the 13.5 positions cut, it was the board’s decision to reduce a full-time culinary arts teacher at the high school to part-time that caused the loudest outcry from the public. The reduction will cut the number of culinary classes available to freshmen from 10 to five.

About a dozen people, mostly high school students, pleaded with the board to restore the position to full-time. They argued that culinary classes are extremely popular and cutting the offerings to freshmen would mean less people would be able to take the class and move on to subsequent courses.

“The historic popularity of culinary suggests more classes should be offered not less,” Woodland culinary teacher Catherine Mirabilio, whose position would be reduced, told the board.

Students contended the course teaches them life skills that they can’t learn in other courses.

“I think it’s an essential class,” Woodland senior Arica Watford said. “I think you really learn a lot of things.”

The culinary class was described as educational and fun by students, who all agreed that reducing the number of classes would be a great let down.

“I think it would be a real disappointment if we cut this in half,” Woodland senior Yahmed Rountree said.

Despite the pleas, the board didn’t restore the position.

Culinary arts wasn’t the only elective at the high school impacted by budget cuts.

The board voted, following the hearing, to reduce one full-time music teacher at the high school to part time. Exactly how this move will impact the music program wasn’t immediately clear.

Agostine said, the day after the hearing, that school officials will need to review enrollment in music courses before deciding where to cut music courses. But, he said, it’s likely that the three guitar classes offered will be cut and the Advanced Music Theory course will be combined with AP Music.

Board Chair Lisa DeGoes said although not everyone is going to agree with the decisions of the board, the board always considers the students interest when it reviews its programs.

“We look very hard and careful at all of our programs to keep in mind what’s best for the students,” DeGoes said.

Months of budget workshops will now come down to the opinion of voters. In a weighted 4-4 vote, the board approved sending the budget to a referendum on Tuesday, May 3.

Positions slated to be cut are as follows:

3.5 elementary school teachers.

1 guidance counselor.

2 part-time teaching positions.

Reduce full-time high school culinary arts teacher to part time.

Reduce full-time high school music teacher to part time.

2 full-time and four part-time paraprofessionals.

1 full-time high school media center aide.

1 full-time maintenance person.

1 middle school computer aide.