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Westbrook school budget moves up, forward

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Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2013 11:10 am

WESTBROOK – The Westbrook School Committee has approved moving the budget forward in the approval process, despite a $60,000 last-minute addition that, if it survives, would result in a tax increase to residents.

On April 10, the full School Committee members weighed in on the budget for the first time since the Finance Committee closed its discussions April 3, resulting in many proposed modifications, but only one addition: $60,000 for new laptops for elementary school teachers.

The budget faces another vote at a School Committee meeting April 24.

Jim Violette, School Committee chairman, said Friday that some members thought the addition may have been a mistake.

“Some people still feel it [the new laptops] warranted expenditure, but they want to deal with it differently,” said Violette.

This means during the next School Committee meeting, members could vote to remove the laptop expenditure and add it to the project list to take on next year, according to Violette.

Dean Flanagin, director of operations, said the new budget, including the $60,000 approved by School Committee members last week, is $32.3 million and will add an addition $6.55 in taxes annually on a $190,000 home.

The budget initially was proposed at $33.3, a $2.4 million increase on this year’s $30.9 million spending plan.

The $32.3 million is still $1.4 million higher than this year’s budget. The district will receive more revenue from the state than anticipated this year, offsetting the higher bottom line.

School Committee member Suzanne Salisbury made the motion to add $60,000 back into the budget to cover the cost of buying all kindergarten through Grade 4 teachers new PC laptops to replace their computers, which date from 2005.

“We’ve talked about this for the last three years. It’s time,” said Salisbury.

Salisbury, Veronica Bates, Suzanne Joyce and Mary Hall voted to add the money back in after it was taken out of the budget by the Finance Committee during a March meeting. Committee member Alex Stone, chairman of the Finance Committee, Symbol and Violette voted against the modification.

Stone said the reason the Finance Committee removed the new PC computers from the budget is because also included in the financial plan was $74,000 to buy approximately 1,500 MacBook laptops being used by middle school and high school students through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative laptop program. Next year, all Grade 7 and 8 students and staff will receive new computers as part of initiative’s one-to-one program, putting more than 2,000 computers in the district for continued use by students and staff at the middle school and high school. Elementary teachers’ old PC laptops would also be replaced with the newer MacBooks.

A government-funded program, E-rates, will be used to purchase the MacBooks at no cost to the taxpayers.

According to its advocates, the biggest problem with not purchasing new computers for the elementary teachers was breaking up the autonomy in computer systems between student and teacher at that learning level.

“I disagree with giving them a MacBook while students are operating on a PC. They may not be able to follow along. The programs may be the same, however steps that are taken to do anything on the program is different,” said Bates. “Any child trying to follow along, and that’s how they learn, if they can’t follow those steps exactly we’re going to have a lot of frustrated kids.”

Superintendent Marc Gousse said he had been assured that the programs used by teachers and other staff at the elementary schools could be run on both PC and Mac systems.

Committee members estimated elementary students were not using the computers every day or if they did, it was for a brief time span.

While the plan intends to continue supporting learning with technology, Symbol expressed concern that technology was not helping students.

“We’re behind in English social studies science and math [New England Common Assessment Program] scores. We’re spending more time teaching computers than using them in the classroom,” Symbol said.

Gousse said the district does have a five-year technology plan in place that will focus on making sure the technology in the school system doesn’t become dated.

“The Finance Committee came up with plan to bring laptops in at zero cost to taxpayer and now were going to add back in at the cost of $7 per household. I can’t support that. If someone wants to add something back in, come back and tell me where they want to cut. I won’t support any amendments. If it’s that important, important to teachers, let’s look through here and find $60K to cut out,” Symbol said.

After the addition passed, committee members did suggest cuts, including removing one of the three new elementary teachers and using more of the potential carry-forward to cover the increase. Both were voted down.

Gousse and Peter Lancia, director of teaching and learning, said the reason for needing three new elementary school teachers was because of a projected large incoming kindergarten class, making it likely that all three would be needed. If the enrollment is not as large as anticipated, the positions would not be filled. Lancia said there were more than 150 families at the first enrollment meeting held last week. Not only was that a high number for this early in the enrollment process, he said, but also at least 100 families who do not sign up for enrollment early show up on the first day of class.

The carry-over plan was also rejected because many of the committee members thought it cut too deeply into a projected fund that wasn’t guaranteed. The projected carry-over amount from this fiscal year is estimated at $850,000, but will not be confirmed until after the public votes on the budget on June 11.

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