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Board of Ed Fine Tunes Proposed Budget

By Jarret Liotta

The Board of Education (BOE) Thursday night took what may be a final look at details of Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer’s proposed $119,283,880 school budget for 2019-20, with a requisite vote tentatively scheduled for its Monday meeting.

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(l-r) Board of Ed member Elaine Whitney, Vice Chair Jeannie Smith, and Chairman Mark Mathias. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com

However, owing to some confusion, the board has asked legal counsel to see if there might be a chance for more time for deliberation before it gives its official request to the Board of Finance (BOF).

“We’re looking to see if legally we can do that,” Chairman Mark Mathias said at a special Thursday night meeting, again reminding his board that BOF Chairman Brian Stern had said he hoped the educators would keep their increase request to 1.2 percent. Palmer’s budget seeks a 2.6 percent increase.

“Obviously we don’t know what levers and handles they have to pull,” Mathias said. “That’s their job to figure out.”

“I certainly, for one, have to noodle on it,” he said of the proposal. “I hope members of the public will submit their questions and ideas.”

BOE member Elaine Whitney read out a list of particulars that are being mulled over by various board members, including the addition of a .5-full-time administrator equivalent at Long Lots School.

The biggest question mark, however, remains whether the BOE will stand by its Coleytown Middle School (CMS) closure-caused initial decision to put sixth grade at the five elementary schools next year, leaving Bedford Middle School (BMS) as a townwide school for grades seven and eight.

Following news that rental of the portable classrooms needed to put the K-6 plan into action will cost significantly more than was expected, some BOE members are questioning if it might not be prudent to reverse the decision and go with a townwide 6-8 middle school next year at BMS instead.

According to Palmer’s projections, the K-6 plan next year will account for an $88,000 addition to the budget, plus the price of 14 portables, which she hopes to see mostly reimbursed by the state. By contrast the 6-8 plan would save $545,000, separate of adding any portables.

With a more definitive report on the future of the CMS building due to be presented by the CMS Task Force on Monday night, the budget vote could be impacted.

For the second time this month the BOE heard details from Natalie Carrignan, director of technology, about the 7.6-percent increase in tech costs for next year —$2.14 million in total — some of which relates to the K-6 plan.

She explained how the district intends to make an additional investment in laptop computers for teachers, as well as docking stations, to augment mobility.

“We have $100,000 worth of teacher’s desktops that need to be replace anyway,” she said. With CMS closed, she said, they’ll be able to shuffle some around from that building, and meanwhile put some of that money toward $232,000 in new laptop costs.

Carrignan’s request for $123,300 for touch laptops for primary grade students also re-raised a question of the unknown long-term impact of too many blue screens on young children, which was brought up by a parent at the Jan. 14 BOE meeting.

“Are we making a statement that devices are good for kindergartners?” asked BOE member Vik Muktavaram. “Are we making a statement that devices are good for first graders?”

In response Palmer highlighted the impact of free Google programs that have been incorporated into the curriculum, including Google Docs, which she said have streamlined collaboration and feedback.

“It’s changed how kids learn,” she said, noting that the district’s most recent technology plan aims at ultimately offering all students, K-12, access to devices on a one-to-one basis.

“I’m not denying there are benefits,” Muktavaram said, but he noted the board should revisit the policy it hopes to promote with regard to children and screen time, at least before making the full-out investment.

“To me it sounds like the technology is driving the budget,” he said. “I would rather have a discussion before we invest.”

Mathias made note of a school district in California that he said has put a no-technology philosophy in place, asking rhetorically how it might play out in the future.

“I think having a technology discussion would be a good thing to do,” he said, but noted that time constraints made it unfeasible for this night.

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