Proposed school budget carries 3.1% increase

The Bristol Board of Education recently approved a budget proposal of $110.2 million for Fiscal Year 2015-16, an increase of 3.16 percent or $3.3 million over the current budget of $106.8 million.
During a school board meeting held last Wednesday, Bristol Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ellen Solek presented her proposed budget, which she called a “maintenance” budget, as there is no major new programming included in the proposal. The board voted 7 to 1 in approval of the budget. Commissioner Jeffrey Morgan voted against the budget. Commissioner Karen Hintz was absent.
But one new priority of the proposed budget this year focuses on reinstating middle school programming, such as interscholastic sports and classroom music instruction.
“These two areas [interscholastic sports and classroom music instruction] were readily removed from the budget and the programming in our district back in 2011-12 as a result of the recession and significant budget cuts that ensued,” said Solek.
During the meeting, Gary Franzi, director of finance for Bristol Public Schools, noted major expense drivers of the budget increase, including salaries, benefits and fixed charges, operations, plant maintenance, instructional supplies and materials, and transportation. Other factors include students enrolled in magnet schools outside the district, and capital and technology expenditures, among others.
Franzi said nearly 97 percent of the overall operating budget includes fixed costs.
“When you look at the overall operating budget for the district, close to 97 percent of total costs are fixed,” said Franzi. “We have contractual, collective bargaining obligation agreements with transportation…we have some fixed contracts for our facilities.”
“This budget reflects a fiscally responsible approach to student growth and achievement in our district,” added Solek.
During her presentation, Solek outlined the framework for the district’s growth model, which includes implementing best practices, maximizing resources, collaborating and communicating, and innovating.
She noted a number of best practices the district has currently achieved, including the implementation of full-day kindergarten, reviewing current safety/security plans, exploring online learning opportunities and increasing federal, state and local assessment scores as well as starting parent and student advisory councils, among others.
Solek said the district also has maximized a number of existing resources, such as reallocating existing staffing positions to meet new program demands, and sharing services in the areas of payroll, technology, maintenance, public works and construction. In addition, the district has centralized processes and programs in the areas of technology, new student registration and residency verification. In other words, parents can access different services at a central location (the Board of Education offices).
“Not only does that maximize a parent’s ability for one-stop-shopping, but it also saves an awful lot of labor,” said Solek.
Solek said the district also has created innovative ways to get the work done. For instance, the district has utilized online blended learning, which combines technology and classic instruction to extend classroom opportunity for students and increase the amount of time for learning. The district also has developed new programs and services to meet the needs of many in multiple locations.
In addition, the district has reflected on ways it can minimize the costs of special education, such as working with the Bristol Hospital’s Parent & Child Center for parent training and workshops, at no cost. The district also has received continued support from full-time board-certified behavioral analysts who work with regular education staff to create effective interventions for student behavior.
“There are so many achievements district wide that our students and staff have worked so hard to attain,” said Solek. “This budget proposal seeks to support all of those initiatives.’
Solek added that about two years ago, the district began considrable collaboration and communication on a regular basis with city officials, including the City Council, mayor, and comptroller.
“That at-large group has begun to identify prioritized needs for the respected budgets,” said Solek. “We are sharing resources and we are beginning to draft a plan for the future not only for the school district but [also] for the city of Bristol at large.”
During the meeting, a couple of parents approached the school board about the elementary school class sizes.
Anthony Rinaldi, a parent of two daughters at South Side School, addressed the board regarding manageable class sizes.
“I hope that will continue for next year,” said Rinaldi, adding that there are at least 30 students in his daughters’ fourth grade classes.
Currently in grades K-5, the average class size is 20.9 and the average class size for grades 6-8 is 24, said Solek during her budget presentation.
“There was research and statistical data that reports that in elementary school…once you get over 25 students, the effectiveness of a single teacher’s ability to deliver differentiated instruction in the classroom is significantly minimized,” said Solek. “We need to maintain class sizes of reasonable size so that teachers can continue to perform effectively.”
In response to parents’ concerns about class sizes, Solek said the proposed budget supports current staffing levels.
“We can do some redistribution of staff depending on enrollment to even out those numbers and reduce some of the areas we know now that are on the high side,” said Solek.