The West Hartford Board of Education approved an amended budget of $181,187,018 Tuesday night by a vote of 5-2.
By Ronni Newton
The Board of Education made a few tweaks to the budget proposed by Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore on March 1, approving in a 5-2 party line vote a $181,187,018 plan that increases spending by 2.77% ($4,880,963) and also reinstates pay-for-play in the high schools at a discounted rate for the 2022-2023 academic year.
Salary and benefits and transportation costs are the major drivers of increased costs detailed by Moore in his March 1 presentation.
Moore’s initial proposal of $181,328,975 was trimmed by $141,957 on Tuesday, the net impact of a pension contribution adjustment, the elimination of a vacant library media specialist position, and the addition of a pupil services department supervisor.
The pension contribution is an adjustment that was provided after the town’s actuarial evaluation, Director of Finance and Planning Liz Hewitt said, and is a reduction of $177,086 from what was initially projected for the upcoming year.
Board members proposed the other amendments. Vice Chair Deb Polun suggested the elimination of the vacant library media specialist position, a $120,953 savings that was approved unanimously.
Ari Steinberg proposed the addition of a supervisor for the Department of Pupil Services, increasing the number of supervisors from six to seven. Director of Pupil Services Melissa Caballero said a major reason the position is necessary is due to the large number (more than 100) of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that the district is legally responsible for managing for West Hartford residents who attend non-public schools.
Board member Gayle Harris asked if ESSER II (Emergency and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds could be used for this position, but Caballero said the role is not just a short-term need, and the ESSER funds are only available through June 2024.
Superintendent Tom Moore also noted that an 092 certification is needed for this position, which limits the applicant pool, and a temporary two-year job funded by ESSER would present an even greater limitation.
The amendment, which added $155,722 back to the budget, passed by a vote of 6-1 with Harris casting the lone dissenting vote.
A proposal made by Jason Chang to reallocate ESSER funds will not impact the budget’s bottom line, but will impact student athletes and their families.
Chang proposed using a portion of the $400,000 in ESSER funds that had been earmarked to allow students to participate in sports next year at no charge to instead fund tutors and other professionals to provide additional support for students who have fallen behind due to the pandemic.
Chang said that recent assessments indicated that 55% of high need students were below grade level achievement in English and Language Arts, and 78% of high need students who were remote were below grade level achievement, and the loss was even greater in math.
Chang’s proposal was to reinstitute pay-for-play for the 2022-2023 school year, at a rate of $100 per child per sport with a cap of $400 per family – which is discounted from the pre-pandemic cost of $175 per child per sport. Some of the ESSER funds ($175,000) would still be used to discount the fee, while $225,000 would be reallocated.
Several Board members expressed concern about shifting the charges to families, possibly limiting opportunities for students to participate in sports. Moore said anyone who is eligible for free or reduced lunch is automatically eligible to have the pay-to-pay fee waived, although it does have to be requested. “Payment is not something we are going to keep a child out of a sport for,” he said.
“I strongly oppose this proposal,” Polun said. “Research shows there are other ways to promote good mental and emotional health,” she said, and that was a factor in last year’s decision by the Board to use ESSER funds for pay-to-play to encourage participation.
This is a way to remove a barrier, Polun said. “I know no one has been turned away but we don’t know many people are even having the conversation,” she said. While there will be a “cliff” when the ESSER funds run out in 2024, she doesn’t think that’s enough of a reason to ask families to pay now.
Harris also said she was afraid some kids would not play sports because they would not want to ask their families to pay for it.
“This doesn’t eliminate the ability for physical activities,” Steinberg said, suggesting non-school sports or taking a walk around the neighborhood. Unlike academic and mental health support, those activities can be done outside of school.
Conard student representative Andrew Maglio, who is a member of Conard’s tennis team, said sports in school aren’t the same as sports outside of school. “Tennis at Conard is more than tennis, it’s being part of the community,” he said, and such a huge part of so many students’ lives. As a non-cut sport, the tennis team opens opportunities to many students, and he asked the board to please continue to keep sports participation free.
In a roll call vote, the Board voted 4-3 to approve the reallocation of the ESSER funds, with Democrats Chang, Board Chair Lorna Thomas-Farquharson, Steinberg, and Clare Taylor Neseralla voting in favor of the change, and Polun, along with Republicans Harris and Ethan Goldman, opposing it.
Polun then proposed an amendment to add $225,000 to the budget to completely fund pay-for-play in 2022-2023, but the proposal was defeated 3-4 with Harris and Goldman adding their support but Thomas-Farquharson, Steinberg, Neseralla, and Chang in opposition.
The vote on the overall budget was 5-2, with all five Democrats voting in favor of it and the two Republicans opposed, but all thanking staff for their hard work.
“In this challenging time I’m impressed with the reductions that were put forward,” Neseralla said.
“Crafting a budget is one of our most important responsibilities,” Polun said. “This budget, while imperfect, meets the needs of our students and families.”
“It’s a huge ask of you, of us, to really try to balance all the needs that we have in the town and try to prioritize,” Steinberg said.
Goldman said he would have been fine with the original proposal even though he would have preferred more cuts, but he had a “strong philosophical problem” with resuming pay-to-play.
“I would have supported this budget the way it was written,” Harris said, but felt that if something was needed it should have been in the original proposal. “I can’t really support some of the things that were added into this budget,” she said.
“I’m really excited for the work that will be done with this $181,187,018 that is the lifeblood of our community,” Chang said.
There has been a lot that students have had to deal with the past two-plus years, Thomas-Farquharson said. “I appreciate the effort that has been made to try to address those concerns now and make sure they don’t linger on.”
The process is now in the hands of the Town Council which has one remaining public hearing on the budget, scheduled for Wednesday, April 6, at 6 p.m. at Town Hall. The budget is scheduled to be adopted on Monday, April 25.
The Council can adjust the Board’s overall budget, but cannot make line item changes. Should changes be made, the Board would then need to determine how they are allocated.
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