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West Hartford Board of Education Has Heated Discussion, Passes Budget as Proposed

The $164.55 million budget proposed by Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore on March 6 was approved by the Board of Education on Tuesday night.

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education voted Tuesday night to approve the $164,551,227 spending plan as proposed by Superintendent Tom Moore for the 2018-19 academic year, an overall increase of $4,693,773 or 2.94 percent more than the $159,857,754 budget the Board operated under for the 2017-18 academic year.

Negotiated salary contracts, benefits, and increases in the cost of energy and transportation were the main drivers of the budget increase. The wage increases are impacted by contractual step increases for the district’s many young teachers, but a hiring freeze resulted in a surplus in 2017-18 of $1.1 million, which will be rolled over into the next budget and offset the contractual increases.

Other factors include an increase of 5.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions at the high school level, where a small senior class will be replaced by a very large ninth grade class, $200,000 for “School Refusal and Home Outreach” which is primarily family engagement in cases where anxiety or mental health issues prevent students from attending school, $100,000 for post-secondary program enhancements, and $270,000 resulting from raising the rate for TAs and substitutes to $90 per day, and $95 per day for special education TAs, to keep up with market conditions and ensure the positions can be filled. For more details, click here.

The vote Tuesday night to approve the budget was 5-2, along party lines, and took place after an intense and heated discussion prompted by suggested cuts that Republican Rob Levine proposed to his fellow Board members in an email late Monday night.

Levine was elected in November 2017, and was not part of the budget deliberations for the 2017-18 academic year. His suggestions came from the list of possible cuts considered by the Board in 2017, but several Board members, as well as Moore, said that the fact that they were brought up the night before the meeting, rather than at one of two workshops the Board held in advance of Tuesday’s vote, was a surprise. The move sparked dispute about the appropriateness of the timing.

Board Chair Cheryl Greenberg, a Democrat, said that Moore was tasked this year with presenting a budget with “no gimmicks,” not one that left fat just so that the Board could have something to cut.

That’s what Moore did, she said, and his budget already included several cuts from what he otherwise would have proposed, including an instructional coach, two secretaries in Central Office, two FTE positions, three paraprofessionals, 1.5 teaching assistants, and one maintenance worker. “We have not only cut finances but we have also cut people from the budget,” Greenberg said.

Levine started off the Board’s budget discussion by making a motion to decrease the number of physical education credits that West Hartford’s high school students are required to take, since the state only requires 1.0 credit. “It doesn’t, in my opinion, impact anything substantial and it’s a six-figure saving,” Levine said.

Levine thought that the savings for cutting the credits from 1.25 to 1.0 would  be $110,000, but there was a typographical error in the records from last year, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction Paul Vicinus said that last year’s suggestion was a reduction from the current physical education level of 1.5 to 1.25, and Director of Finance & Planning Chip Ward noted that the savings would be only $58,000. In addition, Moore said that the state is going to require a combined physical and health requirement of 2.0 credits beginning with the class of 2023, which will actually require more positions.

Republican Mark Zydanowicz also floated the idea that students who play a varsity sport should be exempt from taking physical education during the season, something that would require changing the state mandate. “I’d like to see our legislators get involved with this,” he said, adding that the physical education requirement is really an “unfunded mandate,” and when he played sports in high school he did not have to take physical education. “It’s good legislation and would save some money,” Zydanowicz said.

Moore said that last year, when there was greater uncertainty in state funding, and when he had provided an extensive outline of possible budget reductions, he spent six weeks discussing the options and visited all 16 schools so that people knew what might happen. To vote tonight would be letting his staff down.

“We’re just doing this tonight. So people are watching at home now and they’re thinking, ‘My job’s on the line and nobody said anything to me? Tom didn’t say anything about this,'” Moore said.

Finding out you’re going to lose your job on April 3 would be unfair, Moore said. “That’s not fair to do to someone with a family. That’s not the way West Hartford treats its employees historically,” Moore said, the raw emotion in his voice clearly evident. The audience, which included many school principals, applauded.

Levine did not back down, and continued to spar with Moore about the issue, saying that cuts are never easy and the need for cuts isn’t going away.

“We traffic in people. That’s what we do,” Levine said. “We are in crisis mode in this state and this city is right in the bullseye.” He said that any savings that can be made this year will make next year that much easier.

“When we were in a crisis last year the people spoke up and stood up for education,” Moore responded.

While Levine said it was only “some of the town” and those who are active, Moore said that it was indeed significant that 450 people attended hearings or expressed support for the school budget in other ways.

Greenberg added that those who voted in favor of the budget also got re-elected, but Levine said those were “people who care.”

Zydanowicz said that 85 percent of those who voiced support of the budget were teachers, and Moore said that was untrue. “It was overwhelmingly teacher support,” Zydanowicz said. “No,” Moore replied vehemently.

Board member Deb Polun, a Democrat who was elected last fall and was not part of last year’s budget deliberations, said that while there might be merit to making a cut to a program that’s above state requirements, she would have liked to have community input on Levine’s suggestions.

“If we had brought this up at either of the Board workshops then the community would have known … because we didn’t bring this up until now, that makes me uncomfortable because we haven’t really provided an opportunity for the community to tell us how they feel.” Polun said that even though cutting physical education credits was an option last year, bringing the idea up in advance this year might have called people to action.

“So I would argue if you’re not outside your comfort zone maybe you’re not putting forward the town’s best interests,” Levine said. “These decisions are all out of my comfort zone, just so you know.” He said he implores the Board to not just approve a roll forward budget. “That’s the problem, the town doesn’t engage the way we would like,” with a total of four people attending budget hearings. “You had your chance to show up and talk to us and hear what we were thinking, and you didn’t do it,” he said.

Moore said people didn’t come out because they were okay with the 2.94 percent increase. “When people are angry that’s when they’re agitated and they come out … Anger is what motivates people,” he said.

Democrat Dave Pauluk said it would have been great to consider the cuts that Levine proposed in Monday night’s email at the second workshop, but it’s difficult to begin to review cutting physical education requirements, as well as the other suggestions that Levine planned to propose in motions, less than 24 hours before the vote.

“At this 11th hour it’s difficult for us, at least for me, to give it proper consideration,” Pauluk said, “so I couldn’t consider it even if it’s something I could agree with at some point.”

Greenberg said that the Board needs to start conversations and thinking about trimming the budget in September. “My concern now is that it’s happening without any warning this year.” She said whether it’s at a retreat or through some other method, the Board should, in a formalized and structural way, give plenty of thought before taking action.

Moore said all the talk is about cuts and as if the town is spending wildly. “We are the most efficient school district in the state, when you compare what we spend with the results you get” Moore said. “All you’re talking about is how to tear it down, it’s unfathomable to me,” he said.

It’s about more than just cuts. “West Hartford needs to do more than just stay afloat, because you’re right, the state does have dramatic problems,” Moore said. “But our kids are going to be going off into that state.”

Not spending money isn’t always the answer, Moore said.

“Money pays teachers. Money buys books. Money pays for programs. Money pays for kids to be in the program they need.” Moore said. West Hartford “is the last inner ring suburb that works,” and one that should be emulated.

Moore said he doesn’t believe anyone moves to West Hartford because their taxes are going to be low. They know what they’re getting into. “When I make that choice I’m making it consciously because dammit my kids deserve it … we can’t afford not to pay for these things,” he said, as the audience once again erupted into applause.

The Board ultimately 6-1 against Levine’s motion to reduce the physical education credit, with Levine casting the only vote in favor of it.

Polun, who made a motion to reduce the proposed pay increases for substitutes, teaching assistants, and special education teaching assistants, withdrew the motion after hearing from administrators about the difficulty filling those positions, and the impact on students as well the time management spends constantly interviewing new candidates because of turnover.

Democrat Carol Blanks voiced her support for the budget as proposed, even though she said at first she had been looking to trim the number of FTEs being added to the high schools as a result of increased enrollment. “We have to be careful about making these decisions,” she said, because increased class size is very impactful on students and the quality of the schools is a big part of why people move to town.

“If we’re going to begin to look at cuts I think we need to have that kind of conversation early on so we can review the impact,” Blanks said.

Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, a Democrat, also voiced her support for the budget as proposed, as well as for starting conversations about next year’s budget well in advance. “When we think about being fiscally responsible we have to think about how it trickles down and how it impacts our young people,” she said.

“How do you measure return on investment in our children?” Polun said. “We’re building our future here, that’s our task.”

The detailed budget is available on the West Hartford Public Schools website here.

The West Hartford Public Schools budget is part of the overall town budget, which will be adopted by the Town Council on Tuesday, April 24. The Town Council has scheduled public hearings on the budget for April 4 at 6 p.m. and April 11 at 2 p.m., at Town Hall.

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2 Comments

  • Moore’s opinion that low attendance at hearings is due to the lack of anger is wrong. The low attendance is from the defeat that citizens sense when past input has been ignored.

    While Moore correctly states that no one moves to West Hartford expecting low taxes, the growth of taxation always exceeds inflation. This leads to the tax burden becoming a larger share of income for residents over time.

    I’ve owned property in town for 30 years, so I don’t fit into Moore’s newcomer bargain. I don’t have a problem with taxation but the town should be able to operate within broader constraints of the economy.

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