The West Hartford Board of Education is scheduled to vote Tuesday, April 4 on the budget for the 2023-2024 year.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford Interim Superintendent of Schools Andy Morrow presented a proposed $189.9 million budget for the West Hartford Public Schools’ 2023-2024 academic year that includes a $8.75 million (4.8%) overall increase, that will be the subject of a vote the Board of Education Tuesday night, and in advance of that vote dozens of families have voiced concern that recommended realignment of staffing in certain areas intended to save costs will be detrimental to programming.
More than 30 speakers – including a large number of elementary school aged children – addressed the Board of Education at a hearing on March 29, with a majority of them asking the Board to reconsider combining the Smith STEM specialist position with a classroom science teacher position. Other speakers urged the Board of Education to preserve the existing number of elementary school music teachers.
The West Hartford Public Schools budget is traditionally presented in the format of a “roll forward” budget, which is then modified due to changes in enrollment or programming.
The budget proposed by Morrow on March 7 trimmed just over $2 million, or 1.2% from the roll-forward budget. Some of the reductions are due to decreased enrollment which allows for 12.05 FTE (full-time equivalent) positions to be eliminated, saving $1.16 million.
“We’re not going to be denying anyone programming,” Morrow said when he presented the budget, nor will there be a loss of services, but scheduling efficiencies due to decreased enrollment and not filling vacancies due to retirement will allow for a reduction of 2.9 FTE positions.
Smith STEM School currently has a lab science teacher and a STEM specialists, as well as a math support position. The proposed budget would merge the positions and Smith would have the same number of magnet positions (two) as exist at Charter Oak International Academy, the district’s other magnet school.
“If you ask any Smith student their favorite part of school day they would say science,” said Colleen McCabe, a Smith parent.
Many of the speakers Wednesday spoke favorably of Sharon Zajack, the STEM specialist at Smith. Numerous fourth graders praised her hands-on science lessons, including the unit on pizza making which starts with planting the ingredients in a school garden in the spring and harvesting them in the fall (of the next grade) and then making – and eating – pizza in the courtyard. Hands-on lessons also include raising and releasing salmon.
“The entire point of the STEM school is to go beyond one single science period,” parent Tanja Low said, who said that one person couldn’t do all that Zajack does, and she is one of the reasons her family chose the school. “A single person would not have the time, energy, or physical capabilities to do what Sharon [Zajack] does,” Low said.
There have been three letters to the editor submitted to We-Ha.com from parents regarding the Smith STEM staffing. They include a letter from Lindsay Cook, a letter from Anthony Diaz and Rubi Ruiz-Bruzos, and a letter from Heather Sansone. All reference statistics specific to the Smith population and the success of the STEM program at Smith in educating a population that has a large percentage of high needs students yet scores among the top in the state on standardized science and math tests.
Board of Education Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson said that in addition to the many who spoke at the Wednesday hearing, dozens also emailed Board members asking for the current number of STEM positions at Smith to be retained.
About 10 of the speakers at the hearing also asked the Board not to reduce the number of music instructors at the elementary school level. The budget contemplates reallocating staffing to fill a vacancy resulting from the retirement of a secondary school music teacher with a current elementary school music teacher.
“We need to nurture and inspire children’s love of music when they are at the elementary level,” parent Jenn Ford told the Board.
Lisabeth Miller Kettledon, a professor at the Hartt School who teaches music educators, and the parent of two elementary school music students in West Hartford, said, “We really need to do keep concentrating our efforts at the elementary level” in order to maintain the quality of the program so that the ability to produce Pops ‘N Jazz at Hall and musicals like “Frozen” at Conard will be able to continue at the current level. Maintaining small group lessons and individualized attention is critical, she said.
Tony Rinaudo, a parent of elementary school students who is also a music teacher in the district, said the current staffing promotes diversity among students who continue their study of music because of the small group instruction provided. With increased class sizes, he fears an “only the strong survive” mentality will result, and said he doesn’t believe that is the Board’s mission.
While Thomas-Farquharson doesn’t know how the Board will vote Tuesday, she told We-Ha.com, “We are always receptive to feedback from the community. … We do want to support well-rounded students, socially, emotionally, and academically.”
The intent of reallocating staffing will “not result in any student being turned away from music education,” Thomas-Farquarson said.
“No programmatic pieces are being removed,” she said.
The Board of Education’s budget is part of the overall town FY24 budget, which is scheduled to be adopted by the Town Council on April 25. The Town Council can make a decision about the overall allocation to the education budget, but cannot make line item changes.
The Town Council also held a budget hearing last week, but just one person spoke. Beth Rocco asked that the Town Council consider adding at least one more staff member to the Senior Center, noting that the director serves both centers and currently has to drive back and forth from Bishops Corner to Elmwood.
In a letter to Town Council members, resident Rose-Marie de Rensis also urged the Town Council to increase staffing, specifically requesting the hiring of at least two more fire inspectors.
The Town Council will hold a second and final budget hearing on Monday, April 3, at 2 p.m. at Town Hall.
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