Principal defends budget with .03 percent decrease
CORNWALL — Town and school budget proposals for 2012-13 have been presented to the Board of Finance, which will offer comment at its regular meeting March 15.The Board of Selectmen is looking at a 1.65 percent increase. The Board of Education is proposing a slight decrease of 0.03 percent in the Cornwall Consolidated School (CCS) budget.But what is driving budget discussions is a 13.45 percent increase to Cornwall’s share of the Region One School District budgets for the high school, Central Office and Pupil Services (special education).The draft Region One budget is available at www.regions1schools.org or in hard copy by calling 860-824-0875. The Region One Board of Education will hold a special meeting March 28 at 5 p.m. at the high school for the purpose of finalizing the proposed budget. A public hearing is scheduled for April 4 at 7 p.m. at the high school. The referendum is May 8.Enrollment at Housatonic Valley Regional High school has been dropping. That raises the per-pupil cost. The majority of physical plant, supplies and program costs cannot be cut, or may be on the rise. What each town pays toward the high school portion of the regional budget is based on the percentage of the total enrollment their students represent.Official enrollment is determined on Oct. 1, and applies to the next fiscal year (beginning July 1). The number of students from Cornwall increased by only three from the prior year, but the percentage it will pay toward the budget — with the proposed increase — will rise by nearly 2 percent.All that translates to an assessment increase of $183,414.It prompted a brief discussion at the March 8 meeting of the philosophy behind budgeting.Cornwall Consolidated Principal Michael Croft said he was focused only on the CCS budget, in response to a question from longtime finance board member Celia Senzer.But when it comes to the Board of Finance and the overall budget total, expenses are expenses. The board is charged with figuring out how to pay for all of it.Senzer suggested that in light of the regional budget increase, and the decreasing student population at CCS, “It seems possible to have a lower budget than just a zero budget,” adding, “I don’t expect it to happen.”Finance board member John LaPorta said school budgets are program-driven, not population-driven.It has been customary for the school board to respond on a very measured basis to enrollment fluctuations, creating varying part-time teaching positions. That works for subjects such as art and music, but not always for classroom teachers. The school currently has only one class per grade. It is saving money in some areas, such as effectively utilizing paraprofessional Carla Whiteside to run the library.The proposed budget actually has increases for staffing, although that line item will drop 4.6 percent.Croft explained the middle school math teacher position will increase from .8 to full time. The move to all-day kindergarten last year has proven to be a good one, but he is proposing the teacher assistant in that class also go to full time next year, especially in light of a large incoming class.This is Croft’s first year at CCS and his first budget for the school, but he seemed confident and firmly stated a long list of priorities he has established for steering the school through less than the best of times and into a future that embraces technology, with staffing maximized for efficiency and learning customized for each student. It is not always about spending, he indicated, but he wanted finance members to understand his motivations.High on that list is matching personnel to needs by making “small incremental but significant changes.”The fact that CCS enrollment is low, and predicted to drop even further is a reason, according to Croft, to plan carefully for changes, and to take a close look at the benefits and limitations. A big issue is the lack of socialization options for students, which can have a negative impact. Options under consideration are mixed age groupings in classrooms and gender splits in gym classes.Technology means investing in hardware, such as more interactive whiteboards and laptops or iPads issued to middle school students. He plans to implement slowly not only for cost, but to allow teachers time to train to use new devices and software to maximum potential.“We need to give students the exposure, training and fluency in technology that will allow them to be successful as adults.”Making investments in things that will save energy and money is already underway, such as work to replace and add insulation in various parts of the building. Croft said that will continue, along with changes and technology to reduce electrical use. A solar voltaic system currently supplies about 5 percent of the school’s electricity needs, and can be expanded.An intriguing proposed capital expenditure is for an addition to the physical education curriculum: a traverse rock climbing wall that would be installed on the rear wall of the gymnasium. Croft explained it would have moveable handholds to meet a variety of abilities (and child sizes), and be capable of being folded up so that it is not available to be used unsupervised.