Minor increase in Windham school budget under review

In the proposed 2012-2013 plans for Windham CT schools, bus transportation across the board is being reduced, children are being returned to their neighborhood schools and transportation for pre­schoolers could, in some cases, become the responsibility of the parents.

Melanie Rivera knows having her daughter’s first preschool teacher visit her at home before the school year began was a luxury that may be unique to the Windham School District.

But, she said, she believes it was critical to her daughter’s success.

“My daughter got to know her teacher before she got to school and she was surrounded by little people (once she got there),” said Rivera, who wants the same experience for her son.

Rivera came to the Windham School District’s Finance and Audit Subcommittee public forum Wednesday night (March 7), where Superintendent Ana Ortiz presented a summary of her proposed budget.

The district is asking for a 1.3-percent increase, which is equal to $555,852 more than the current $ 44.2 million budget — equivalent to a tax increase of about 0.5 mills.

Plans for the school district

Changes are underway in the district that will affect where students go and how they will get there.

Bus transportation across the board is being reduced, children are being returned to their neighborhood schools and transportation for pre­schoolers could, in some cases, become the responsibility of the parents.

That’s not unusual in many communities, but Windham has long been recognized for extraordinary preschool programs and parents, like Rivera, hope that won’t change.

Rivera is also concerned about combining preschoolers with elementary age children which, as of the 2012-13 school year, would include fifth-grade students who currently are in the middle school.

Longtime Board of Education member Susan Collins reminded Rivera and others who attended the forum that only the location is changing regarding the preschool.

“The current people who run the preschool will still be in charge. The teachers aren’t going away. The children will still be cared for and nurtured,” said Collins.

What no one can explain in great detail yet is, with so much change, what will stay the same, which for Rivera is a little unnerving.

Subcommittee Chair Nancy Tinker said this is a different budget year for the board and ironing out the details has taken a little longer than usual.

Tinker said it wouldn’t be surprising if people are wondering how all these changes planned for the district are going to be squeezed out of such a low school budget increase request.

“It’s a modest increase and we’re expecting a lot from it — to do more with less,” said Tinker.

Other changes

Plans include transformation of the middle school and high school programs, including new and improved programs, a gifted program and an “academy” structure designed to tap into student interests and learning style.

Seventy percent of the district’s budget is earmarked for the school buildings and classrooms (including teacher salaries) and the remaining 30 percent will fund the central office, an area where restructuring is also underway.

Tinker said this year’s budget is based on a per-pupil allocation to ensure equality across the district at all grade levels.

While not everyone is convinced the district’s new plans are going to work, state-appointed “Special Master” Steven Adamowski — who joined the district in August — exudes the kind of confidence that makes some believe it’s possible.

Collins said she doesn’t agree with every decision Adamowski has made, but she understands why he made them and believes the district is headed in a positive direction.

Concerns about overcrowded classrooms

Other concerns expressed at Wednesday’s meeting included class size, toilets for “little people” at the elementary schools, overcrowding and transportation.

One of the assertions was moving fifth ­graders from the middle school back to the elementary schools would result in overcrowding at those schools.

“That is not the case,” said Adamowski. The district has actually experienced a drop in enrollment in recent years, he said, and added that “overcrowding” is determined by the state Department of Education’s facilities bureau, not the district.

Beginning in 2013-14, when the new magnet school begins to phase in grade levels, even more space will become available at the elementary schools.

“Please do not be concerned that the schools will be overcrowded,” said Adamowski. “In fact, (in the long run), class size goes down.”

Gifted and Talented program

Windham resident Mark Phelps, a physical education teacher in Ashford whose daughter went through the Windham school system, applauded the school board for plans to reinstate a gifted program, after many years without it.

He said higher achievers in Windham had begun to fall by the wayside and demonstrate decline in performance, with funds and strategies targeting underachievers and the effort to improve standardized test scores.

Phelps believes bringing back the gifted program will help reverse that trend. “Hopefully this will stop some of the brain drain in Windham,” he said.

Phelps also encouraged the district to follow through with the long-term possibility of establishing a dual-language charter school in town and said he hopes it will take a good hard look at ways to increase physical education.

“Physical fitness is something that’s lost as soon as you stop,” said Phelps. He added that in addition to the health benefits, children who are active and fit do better in school.

“This is an improvement you can make without any extra cost and improve test scores,” said Phelps.

Assistant Superintendent Pamela Barker Jones said the district plans to implement a program that will put students in physical education at least once a week throughout the school year.

Resident Mary Lou DeVivo said she came expecting to see an actual budget and was disappointed with the overview that only included the projected increase.

The entire budget is expected to be presented to the Board of Education for adoption on Tuesday, March 13, and, if approved, to the Town Council on Thursday, March 15. From there it would go to the Board of Finance and to referendum in May.

For the first time, the district has prepared a transparent, all-funds budget in response to public demands.

“This is something the majority of the public made very clear to us last year,” said Ortiz. “We wanted to show we are being frugal and conscientious.”

Posted March 8, 2012 as edited by HTNP.com Editor Brenda Sullivan

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