North Stonington - Superintendent Peter Nero will continue chipping away at his proposal for next year's education budget, which as presented is set for its highest percentage increase in at least seven years.
Nero presented a 2013-14 budget proposal to the Board of Education two weeks ago with a 7.1 percent increase over last year's budget - about $12.9 million compared to $12.1 million for the current fiscal year. As the board prepares to continue its discussion of the education budget tonight, Nero said that increase is looking more like 6.71 percent.
"We're getting there," he said, but added that there is "not much wiggle room."
The education budget increases over the past seven years have ranged from no increase to as high as 4.8 percent. The most recent budget rose 0.12 percent after two years of zero percent increases.
"You can only level-fund for so long," Nero said.
About $635,000 of the increase is accounted for in contractual and benefits obligations to staff, including increases in social security, unemployment costs and a 20 percent increase in health insurance premiums. In order to balance the last several budgets, teachers and administrators have in recent years gone without salary increases.
The original $861,000 request for new dollars will go down, Nero said, because of some employment shifts. One teacher has left the school district to teach in another, so the district won't be responsible for unemployment costs, and another teacher will be hired at a lower salary instead.
In order to keep up with new Common Core state curriculum standards, Nero said he will hire a reading specialist for Wheeler High/Middle School and a math specialist for the elementary school. Part-time help for technology will also be increased to a full-time position.
To make room for these changes, Nero said he plans to cut the family consumer science program, eliminating one teacher, as well as reduce the hours for one of the art teachers by 20 percent for an 80 percent full-time equivalency teaching position.
"If I have to improve math scores to keep my schools moving forward, that's where I've got to move my resources," he said.
Outside of contractual and special education costs, the budget will include $135,754 in new dollars.
Nero said he won't "make a lot of friends" in light of some of the tougher decisions, but he insisted they are necessary cuts to achieve the schools' goals in the long run.
"If you're in this business to make everybody smile and be happy, don't get in this business," he said.
Nero said a final decision on the budget will be made by the end of March. The education budget will then go to a town referendum in May to be voted on separately from the municipal budget.