Government Schools

Smith STEM Positions Maintained as West Hartford Board of Education Adopts 2023-2024 Budget

Members of the Smith STEM School community rally outside West Hartford Town Hall before the Board of Education vote Tuesday night. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education made some alterations to the original proposal by Interim Superintendent Andy Morrow before voting to adopt the 2023-2024 budget Tuesday night.

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By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education voted 6-1 to approve the 2023-2024 school budget Tuesday night, after making several modifications to the initial proposal presented March 7 by Interim Superintendent Andy Morrow.

Republican Gayle Harris cast the lone dissenting vote for the $190,124,680 spending plan, which includes an overall increase of $8,937,662 (4.93%) from the 2022-2023 budget. Changes made by the Board of Education Tuesday night added $183,559 to the spending plan proposed March 7.

Morrow thanked the team for crafting a “comprehensive budget that’s also fiscally responsible,” and prior to the Board’s discussion Tuesday night provided some good news that the district and town had received about projected health insurance premiums. The original estimate built into his budget proposal contemplated a rate increase of 8%, but since then the projected premium increase from the State Partnership Plan – which district staff as well as town staff joined several years ago in lieu of remaining self-insured – was revised to 7.5%. That change resulted in a decrease in spending of $138,871, which the Board of Education unanimously approved as an amendment to the budget.

Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson asked Board members for any other suggested revisions to the budget, and member Renée Kamauf proposed – with a second by Jason Chang – that the funds be used to maintain two STEM positions at Smith STEM School rather than merge them. The suggested revision, which added $104,930 back to the budget, was approved unanimously.

At last week’s Board of Education public hearing, via emails to Board members as well as administrators and town leaders, through letters to the editor of this publication, and at the Town Council’s public hearing on the budget Monday afternoon, dozens of current and former parents of Smith STEM students, and dozens of students themselves, advocated for modifying the proposed budget so the STEM coordinator and a lab science teacher position would not be merged. A large group from the Smith STEM community arrived an hour before the Board’s Tuesday night meeting and rallied in front of the doors to Town Hall, and many also attended the meeting where several addressed the Board.

A large crowd attended the Board of Education meeting on April 4, 2023. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Rubi Ruiz, parent of a Smith STEM student and one of the members of the community who submitted a letter to the editor, said at Tuesday’s meeting that she learned over the past week to be vigilant and engaged in local decisions. Consolidation of the STEM specialist and lab science teacher positions at Smith would gut the very program that makes Smith’s magnet program so effective, and successful at attracting students from throughout the district to a school that serves a high-needs population. “I would like to remind you of the promise that you made back in 2020,” she said, a promise to pursue educational equity.

After reading the Board’s own adopted policy on educational equity, Ruiz noted that with the merger of the two positions at Smith,”this budget proposal represents a contradiction to our equity mission.”

Applause erupted in the room when the Board unanimously agreed to maintain the staffing at Smith at current levels in the adopted budget.

Board members questioned a few other items in the budget, and considered other revisions – including plans to not replace a secondary school music teacher who is retiring and instead fill that position with a current elementary music teacher. The overall change to the music staff would be a reduction from 10.5 full-time equivalent positions (FTE) to 9.5 FTE.

Many parents from throughout the district also advocated at last week’s Board of Education budget hearing for maintaining current staffing levels for elementary school music, sent emails to the Board, and several also addressed the Board Tuesday night before the vote on the budget.

Brooke Daly, parent of a student at Wolcott Elementary School – where 95% of the students currently participate in the music program – told the Board Tuesday that there is a “whole population of disabled students that would not be able to participate” if staffing is reduced. Daly’s son, Finn, is a fourth-grader who has autism and Down syndrome, and benefits from being able to have individualized music instruction at Wolcott.  “Music provides him with fine motor schools, memory, math skills,” she said, noting that music is also fun – but that’s a bonus.

Board member Ethan Goldman asked about the specific instructional impact of shifting one elementary music teacher to secondary school, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Paul Vicinus said the average impact would be about “half a student” per group – essentially leaving some group instruction as is but increasing other groups by one student. Specific assignments can’t be determined until enrollment is finalized, he said.

Vicinus said that staffing of music teachers at the elementary school level has been flat for the past 10 years, despite a reduction in the elementary school population of about 300 students during that time. Teachers who split their time between schools don’t generally travel from one school to the other during a single day, but rather are at different schools on different days of the week.

According to Vicinus, there are currently 4.5 days of music instruction at Wolcott, and the proposed staffing change would likely reduce that to four days of music staffing, or an overall reduction of four or five lesson groups.

Harris proposed taking the remaining savings from the health insurance premium reduction to fund a 0.5 FTE music teacher, which Director of Finance and Planning Liz Hewitt said would add $46,305 including benefits. That motion failed by a vote of 2-5, with Republicans Harris and Goldman supporting it and the five Democrats opposing the revision.

The only other proposed revision was made by Goldman, who expressed concern about the 2023-2024 elimination of a discount for pay-to-play fees for high school sports. The proposed budget included a resumption of the pre-COVID charge of $175 per student per sport with a cap of $700 annually per family.

Amid the initial recovery from the pandemic, in 2021-2022 the Board used ESSER (Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds to completely subsidize the cost of high school sports, and in the current year the participation fees were partially subsidized with a cap of $100 per student per sport and $400 per family.

Goldman’s initial suggestion Tuesday night was to cap pay-for-play at the cost of two sports per year per family – which would be $350 – but because the financial impact of that modification could not be determined he ultimately proposed keeping pay to play at the current subsidized level of $100 per student per sport and $400 per year per family. He said he wanted to keep the overall Board of Education budget increase below 5%, and the subsidy he proposed added $217,500, an overall 4.93% spending increase.

“I think sports are also important,” Goldman said. Although students who qualify for free or reduced lunch are able to request a waiver, the fees “could still be an obstacle” to participation.

Chang said continuing the current subsidy, which was adopted as a compromise last year, would be “a modest stabilization,” and Board Vice Chair Ari Steinberg said that in a budget workshop between the Board and the Town Council, she was pleased to see that Council members – who can’t act on line items but have the ultimate authority to determine the Board’s budget allocation – seemed to support subsidizing pay-to-play as a means to “really benefit a lot of families in the town.”

Goldman’s motion was adopted 6-1, with Harris in opposition.

With the announced departure of Executive Director of Equity Enhancement Roszena Haskins – whose role is with the town as well as the school district – leaving for a position in Illinois as of June 30, Harris asked about leaving that position vacant as a way to achieve budget savings. The district’s equity coordinator position has been vacant since January due to the retirement of Scott Ratchford.

“This is a dramatically important position for us,” Vicinus said. The coordinator job will not be filled until the director position is filled, he said, and no motion was made.

Board of Eduction budget modifications. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The Board adopted the $190,124,680 budget by a vote of 6-1, with Harris casting the opposing vote. That amount will be included in the town’s overall general fund budget that is scheduled for adoption by the Town Council on April 25. Should changes be made by the Town Council, the Board would then need to determine how they are allocated.

“Please know that we put a lot of thought into this budget,” Thomas-Farquharson said. “Next year things are going to look a lot different in the budget,” she said, because there will no longer be any ESSER funding. “Our priority is always to be doing the best that we can with the families we are here to serve, and the young people we are here to serve,” she said.

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