Schools chief seeks 3.4 percent budget increase
BETHEL — Superintendent Christine Carver on Thursday evening proposed increasing the school budget by 3.4 percent, the largest requested increase in recent years.
Her nearly $46.7 million version of the 2019-20 budget includes three new teachers and a custodian, largely to help deal with new state graduation requirements and rising enrollment in the district.
The 2018-19 school budget is $45.1 million, a 1.8 percent increase from the previous year. Carver had asked for a 1.68 percent increase for the 2017-18 budget.
For the past two years, the school board has approved the superintendent’s proposal without making changes, although town boards and voters later reduced the plans slightly.
“We really try to achieve fiscal efficiency,” Carver said at Thursday’s school board meeting. “This year is trickier than others because we are having a lot of issues related to enrollment and reductions in state funding and lack of stability in state funding.”
The district’s enrollment has increased from 2,946 students in 2014 to 3,130 in 2018. Carver said the increase become more challenging because of the increase in the number of English-language learners, special education students and students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
“We’re at a tipping point in my opinion because it’s really starting to affect our classes and the programs we can offer our students,” she said.
Two new teachers are needed at Bethel Middle School because next year’s sixth and seventh grades have 40 to 55 more students than the average grade size. One of those teachers would be reallocated from Johnson Elementary School, so only one of those teachers is reflected in the requested increase.
A teacher for English-language learners is needed at the high school, which has 37 of these students. At least 20 speak the same native language — Portuguese — so state law requires the district to hire a certified ELL teacher for the school.
“There is just no way around it,” Carver said.
The district’s ELL population has nearly doubled in recent years, going from 108 students in 2014 to 199 students in 2018.
Another world language teacher is needed because the state now requires students to take a foreign language before they graduate. This requirement will be implemented starting with the Class of 2023.
Carver plans to hire another special education teacher, but this would be paid for through a grant.
Between 2014 to 2018, the percentage of students with disabilities has increased from 11.4 percent of the district to 13.2 percent. This is an increase of 79 students.
“In some districts having that increase in 79 students could cost millions and millions of dollars, but we have done a lot of things to try to mitigate that,” Carver said.
This includes training teachers so these students can stay in the district, rather than spending hundreds of thousands to send them to another school that can better serve them.
Meanwhile, the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch has grown from 20 percent to 28 percent over the past year, largely because students who are eligible for Medicaid are now also able to get free and reduced-price lunch.
Still, these students sometimes need more intervention services because of the impact living in poverty has on literacy skills, Carver said.
Carver also asked for another custodian. The district had eliminated a custodian who worked at Rockwell and Johnson elementary schools when state grants were cut in 2017-18, which has made the buildings dirtier, she said.
“Some days, they are lucky if they can just empty the garbage,” Carver said.
The school board will hold budget workshops on Jan. 29, Jan. 31, Feb. 7 and if needed Feb. 12. The board will present its proposal to the selectmen and Board of Finance on Feb. 21.