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Influx of federal funds will save teachers' jobs, school programs

WINSTED — An infusion of $454,000 in federal jobs stimulus funds is coming to Winsted this year and will be used to save two elementary school teachers’ jobs, create a new position at Pearson Middle School and launch an elementary school reading program, Superintendent of Schools Blaise Salerno said Tuesday.

Salerno spoke in an interview with the Journal hours before heading into a special meeting Tuesday night with the Board of Education, in which he presented details of his plan for the windfall, which was announced last week.

“What the government has said is the purpose of these funds is to either delay the layoffs of teachers or to call them back,” Salerno said, noting that nine teachers were laid off in July to balance the 2010-11 school budget in Winsted.

The funding is a definite, the superintendent added, and the school system has some flexibility in how it decides to spend the money. “There is no doubt about it,” Salerno said. “We will be receiving the money, which will be coming as a grant to the school district — and we don’t have to spend it all this year.”

Salerno’s plan, approved by the Board of Education Tuesday night, is to spend approximately $280,000 of the stimulus this year, including $110,000 for a new elementary school reading program, which he said is sorely needed. “We have been struggling with the reading program that I inherited and I have been looking at different programs for the past  two years. I selected one and had it in the budget, but it had to go because of cuts.”

In addition, Salerno will hire back two of the nine teachers who were laid off last month — a first-grade teacher and a second-grade special education teacher. “The first-grade position will lower class sizes in first grade from 22 to about 18 or 19,” Salerno said. “That’s critical. And we will replace a special education teacher we had to take out because of budget cuts.”

Salerno did not say who specifically would be brought back to teach, but said he is working from a list based on seniority to determine the callbacks.

Lastly, Salerno said, he will create a new position — an in-school suspension teacher. He said this position is also crucial, as the state has pushed local school districts away from out-of-school suspensions in favor of keeping punished students monitored. “This is a position that we did not have in the budget, but we’ve desperately got to have it.”

Salerno said contracted salary increases for staff will be paid for with the federal stimulus, and that the decision to spend $280,000 of the total $454,000 is, in his view, a conservative strategy. “I would love to bring back more teachers, but I think we’re taking the cautious approach,.” he said.

Salerno said the remaining funds, approximately $174,000, will remain unspent until next year, when the Board of Education will have to formulate the budget for 2011-12 and may face further cuts due to the ongoing fiscal crisis in state government.

Tackling asbestos issue

Salerno also raised the issue of asbestos at Pearson Middle School Tuesday night, noting that $18,000 in repairs need to be made in order for the school to open next week. The state health department determined last year, during Winsted’s school reconfiguration, that any asbestos issues at the school needed to be addressed during renovations and construction work. “The amount of asbestos in our vinyl tile is less than 5 percent,” Salerno said. “But there is no minimum accepted by the federal government. It’s zero.”

In response, Salerno has been working on a grant to address tile replacement at Pearson, particularly 920 square feet of space outside the school cafeteria. In all, including tiles and other repairs, about $18,000 in work needs to be done. Salerno asked the school board to take the money out of an emergency repairs line item in the Pearson budget and said he hopes to get 70 percent reimbursement from the state for the expense.

In the meantime, the town’s contracted air-quality testing company, Mystic Air, began taking samples at Pearson this week to see if there are any problems that have been missed. Salerno said any issues that come up will be addressed later this school year in a second phase of repairs, to be announced. Those repairs may include the reopening of two classrooms which have been deemed unusable due to issues with the floorboards. The two classrooms will remain closed for at least the first half of the school year.

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