School board braces for funding battle


January 12, 2011
BERLIN — The Berlin school board, which has had flat funding for the past two years, plans to ask the City for $16,711,731 for the 2011-2012 school year. This is an increase of $937,597 (or 5.9%) from the $15,775,124 budget of 2010-2011. On Jan. 5, the school board members said they feel the increase is necessary to keep the Berlin school system operational.

There had been an overall decrease of 1.1% in the operating budget this year, while salaries and benefits increased by $973,137 (7.7%). That money was used to fund teaching positions and some of the money came from stimulus funds the school had received. It was pointed out that most of the 7.7% increase is for pensions and the retirement fund because the statewide retirement fund is under-funded.

At the moment, the Berlin school system relies on state aid for approximately three-quarters of their budget, so approximately one-fourth of the $16,711,731 would need to come from the city ($4,177,932.75).

The city's proposed operating budget total for 2011 is $32,063,394 and the amount that it says is allotted to the school is $16,801,599. However, members of the school board felt that once they went to speak with the City Council about the budget, they would be undercut by the councilors.

Roland Pinette, the career and technical education director at Berlin Highschool, said that often the school budget is blamed for increases in taxes, yet appropriations to the school department are usually flat.

A major concern for those in attendance was the need to maintain programs and staffing. Some in attendance felt that too many programs had been slashed already. School board member Nicole Plourde said she was concerned over the fact that the high school kids are no longer offered four years of language, something that can affect their admission into certain universities, such as Boston University. Other members said they were concerned about the minimum requirements for science — no chemistry or physics is required — and math (students only need to complete algebra one). The concern was that these requirements left kids unprepared for college and again, could hurt their chances for admission.

Those in attendance felt that with the new warden moving to the area in February with two school age children, maintaining a good school system was necessary. If everything goes as planned, hiring for the Federal Prison will start in March and to attract potential homeowners to the area, it is important to have a good school system for their children.

If more children arrive as a result of the Federal Prison, more teachers will also be needed, considering that already, in the elementary schools, there is a problem with classroom overcrowding.

Georgia Caron, the special education director, was in attendance to voice her concern about the under-funding of the special education programs. She said that currently there is no money in the program budgeted for supplies, books, or equipment, with the exception of an administrative line. The reason for this is because of the staffing cuts made to the department.

The department was cut from 13 people to 12 people and that was manageable, however another position was cut, taking the department down to 11 people. With the stimulus funds that Caron received, she hired back the 12th person, because according to her, without 12 people, the department cannot run properly. She had to choose between hiring someone back and getting supplies, books, and equipment.

Statewide, Caron said, the average amount of students per teacher is 12 to 18 kids. In Berlin, the teachers carry 25 to 40 children.

Caron said "the neediest kids have nothing next year."

While other departments are not in as dire straits as the special education department, they have still had to cut back on important programs. Gary Bisson, BHS principal, said that the school system in Berlin should not be settling for minimum standards, however, with no extra money coming in, minimum standards have become the rule.

Nicole Plourde said that the school board needs to advocate for the students and the staff so they can get the best educational experience and school board member Karin Dorval asked what it would take to fill in the holes in the system.

The board and those in attendance agreed that to ensure the best educational opportunities for students in Berlin, there would need to be a lot more money coming in and that that was not going to happen this year. However, it was brought up that at last year's public hearing, no one spoke on behalf of the school. The school board members suggested rallying people around their cause to come and speak at the public hearing this year.

The situation with the budget was called "devastating" by school board member Martha LaFlamme, who lamented the City Council's lack of support for the school budget. "I don't know what will open their eyes," she said. LaFlamme went on to say that she had been dealing with one councilor who said they wanted to be on the school board because they knew where the cuts needed to be made, and experience she found frustrating.

Last year some of the city councilors came to the school board budget hearing and said that there was still a lot of fluff that needed to be cut out, something that those in attendance on Wednesday night did not agree with.

School board member Linda Pivin said that businesses in the area that benefit from the technical programs at the school (such as the symbiotic relationship between the welding program and Issacson Steel), should be advocating for the school as well.

Other news

Nicole Plourde replaced Mitch Couture as Board Chair, Linda Pivin was made vice-chair, and Martha LaFlamme was voted in as secretary. The session was the first that the board had held with Nathan Morin.

The school board also suggested holding regular sessions with the press so that they could keep the public up to date on what was happening with the schools. "There's a lot of good that we don't tell people about and we should keep people up to date if we expect their support," LaFlamme said.

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