BRISTOL - School officials made their case to the Board of Finance Monday night for a proposed 7.04 percent increase in the 2017-18 school budget.
The proposed $89.4 million budget is a $5.8 million increase over the current year. Some 87 percent of the increase is due to teachers’ salaries, with the rest largely attributed to paraprofessionals’ and secretaries’ salaries.
Superintendent Ellen Solek said the Board of Education originally had asked her to put together a budget with a 3 percent increase. However, what she came up with would have entailed the layoff of almost 30 employees, from administrators and teachers to custodians and secretaries, as well as cutting programs.
A 7.04 percent increase is higher than anyone wants to see, but Bristol has a high-needs population that continues to grow, and yet it still manages to outperform many districts with a similar socioeconomic composition while spending less, Solek said.
Bristol’s annual per pupil expenditure is $13,615, at the low end compared to others in its state defined District Reference Group. In the same group, at the high end, Bloomfield spends $20,973 per pupil. Torrington is the median, spending $16,021 per pupil.
The proposed budget is “a work in progress,” Solek said. “It’s going to require numerous additional collaborative discussions from all of us as we work together to reach the best possible solution.”
Bristol’s schools are at a crossroads, Board of Education Vice Chair Karen Vibert told the finance board.
Bristol has some excellent teachers and administrators who work tirelessly to provide a quality education for the children of Bristol, as well as students who excel in academics, sports, music, community service, and other efforts, and go on to succeed in college and beyond, she said.
“All that being said, over the past decade we have had to make many cuts due to budget constraints,” Vibert said. “We have closed schools. We have eliminated high school academic programs. We have reduced staff, which has increased class sizes. Through attrition we have greatly increased the work load of many of our staff.”
Among the programs that would be at risk if the budget is not fully funded is middle school Spanish, she said.
“A few years ago we finally were able to catch up with other districts and offer a world language in our middle school program. ‘Catch up’ is the wrong phrase as many districts offer a world language program in elementary school, but we were happy to get that.”
The gifted and talented coaches might also have to be cut, she continued.
“It would be unacceptable to cut from the program that services our best and brightest students. I predict if we do cut them, more and more of those students will opt for magnet schools and that will raise our out-of-district tuition costs.”
Layoffs might affect the paraprofessionals in the full-day kindergarten program, Vibert added. “I can’t imagine being a kindergarten teacher with up to 20 students in my class, some as young as four years old, without a para, even if that para is shared with other kindergarten classes.”
Vibert said some residents prefer not to pay higher taxes for the schools. As a homeowner here, she said, “I’m one of many who would prefer to invest in our town than to under-resource the children, and we all know that a strong school system raises the values of our homes.”
Cheryl Thibeault, Board of Finance chairwoman, said that what the Bristol schools have been able to achieve “blows most of the other schools [in the DRG] out of the water.”
“They should be coming to you for advice on how to reduce their costs,” she added.
Several members of the public commented in favor of the proposed budget, also stressing that a strong school system helps property values.
“It comes down to the value of Bristol,” said Paul Krell. “You want people moving in, you want old folks who want to leave to be able to sell their homes at a decent price.”
Bob Vojtek, former finance board member, said “we have sliced and diced the education budget as long as I’ve been around.”
Having the school faculty and staff do more and more with less and less can only be sustained for a certain amount of time “before the whole things collapses,” Vojtek said. “This is really the time to buckle down because we don’t know what’s happening at the state level, we don’t know what’s happening at the federal level, all we can control is what we do in Bristol.”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or email@example.com.