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West Hartford Board of Education Allocates Budget Cuts, Awaits Graduation Announcement

West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent's Office. Photo credit: Ronni Newton (we-ha.com file photo)

The West Hartford Board of Education allocated the $228,000 budget reduction made by the Town Council last week, and Superintendent Tom Moore said a graduation plan for late June will be announced later this week.

By Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Board of Education voted Tuesday night, 5-2 along party lines, to cut the three items it had added back to the budget unanimously adopted April 28. The Board also learned that plans for high school graduation have been set for June 24 and 25 with specific details to be advised later in the week.

The Town Council had cut $228,000 from the Board’s requested spending plan when it adopted the town’s overall budget last week – the exact cost of the amendments the Board had made to fund the ASK program at Hall High School ($78,300), add a secondary school math coach ($85,000), and amend the pay-to-play fees for sports ($64,700). The Town Council cannot make decisions about individual items in the Board of Education budget, only adjust the total allocation.

Superintendent Tom Moore, at the request of the Town Council, had presented $4.6 million in cuts at a Board workshop on April 21, but after lengthy discussion the Board had decided to add back the $228,000.

“I understand what we have to do here tonight… but for us to have had a unanimous pass of a budget it’s unprecedented,” Republican Mark Zydanowicz said about the need to adjust the budget.  

He said that he was disappointed the Town Council chose to remove the same exact amount the Board had added after much deliberation, and said it was “hypocrisy” because at the same time the Council increased its own budget more than the Board’s requested 0.79% increase.

Zydanowicz, who along with Republican Rob Levine voted against the budget revisions, said he would like to have money come out of different areas.

Levine also suggested finding a different way to make the cuts. “We don’t have to listen to them, we have to cut the budget by that amount,” Levine said, suggesting taking it from a health care reserve, or the non-lapsing account, since the board generally has a surplus each year.

Moore and Director of Finance Liz Hewitt advised against the approach of using reserves.

“Anything that we spend out of reserves this year creates that much bigger of a hole in next year’s budget that we have to replace by taxes,” Moore said, and there is already much uncertainty for next year surrounding special education and the likely need to have additional buses for physical distancing. In addition, there will be need to staff nutrition services during the summer for distribution of grab and go lunches – a program that Moore was happy to announce  was just granted through the USDA.

Hewitt said the retiree health reserves really should not be used for any other purpose.

Democrat Ari Steinberg said she was also disappointed that the Town Council didn’t support the Board’s budget, and thought the unanimous vote had sent a strong message.

“These are very difficult times and during difficult times difficult decisions need to be made,” Steinberg said, but added that she has very significant concerns regarding issues and obstacles that are likely going to come forward and need to be addressed, significant issues regarding mental health and wellbeing.

“I think we all have no choice moving from this moment through the next several years to work just one step at a time,” Amanda Aronson said. She said the Board worked its process as well as possible and is not comfortable dipping into reserves.  

“At the end of the day this is where we are, this is what we have to work with,” said Aronson. 

“Our best option, and it’s not a great option, is to move forward with the motion to adopt these changes. I say that with regret,” Board Chair Deb Polun said.

Polun said that once the plan for the fall is clearer, she would like Moore to take another look at the budget to see what perhaps can be done.

In other action the Board extended Moore’s contract as superintendent for the period July 1, 2020-June 30, 2023. Moore had requested that the Board refrain from giving him a raise.

“The board met last week and had great conversation with Mr. Moore and our recommendation is  … to move forward with a zero percent increase for the next year,” Polun said. “This does not reflect what we would like to do and does not reflect how much we value our superintendent. … We very much appreciate not just your willingness but your proactive offer.”

The Board also reviewed revisions to the Student-Athlete Handbook for the high schools, which will now apply not just to athletes but to all students engaged in extracurricular or co-curricular activities.

A vote to accept the revised handbook will take place June 2, in order to allow the public to review and offer comment on the document. More details can be found on the Board of Education’s website.

Regarding graduation, Moore said there is a plan in place, and thanked Director of Secondary Education Anne McKernan, Conard Principal Julio Duarte, Hall Principal Dan Zittoun, and assistant superintendents Paul Vicinus and Andy Morrow for their hard work getting to this point.

“Keep June 24 and 25 open,” Moore told the Board, noting that Conard and Hall will graduate on different days. Video announcements and other details will be forthcoming later this week but he wants the seniors to be the first to hear the plan.

“I believe it’s a plan that 100 percent is the best that we can do … there are a lot of things in this that I am really excited about,” Moore said. There were 1,200 responses to the graduation survey, and even the minor comments were taken into account, he said.

Director of Diversity Roszena Haskins said said also very excited about the plan. “We wanted to be thoughtful, honorable for our students, to give them what they deserve.”

The last day of school for seniors will be June 12.

The Board also accepted the resignation of Levine who announced Tuesday that he will be giving up his seat. No information about a replacement for the Republican was mentioned.

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