Lydia Benedict and Andy Dousis
The Lyme Times
Over the past three months East Lyme school district has undergone some sweeping changes. These changes have been generated by parents, teacher and residents joining forces to insure that the best interest of children and family are protected. This is a good thing. Now, with five of ten-member school board up re-election, we want to utilize this opportunity for an on-going, sustained change for the better. We suggest a new commitment to Straight A’s: Affordability, Accessibility and Accountability.
No doubt East Lyme students receive a quality education. But a rearrangement of our spending priorities would boost morale of teachers and aids, lending to even better student learning. The obvious place to start is the top-heavy administration. Besides a Superintendent salary exceeding $130,000 and a Special Services Coordinator making over $106,000, is it really necessary to have an Assistant Superintendent ($117,000), a Curriculum Coordinator ($96,000), a Business Manager ($67,000), and an ever growing number of consultants and support staff afforded to each of these senior positions?
Keep in mind, none of these individuals actually work in the classroom or interact directly with our students. Yet whenever staff cuts are made for budgetary reason, teachers and teachers assistants are threatened, not administrators. It should be the other way around. One administrator salary could potentially go to hiring two new full time teachers, or easily pay for several paraprofessionals.
Just two weeks ago, for example, the Board of Education voted to slash pay and health care benefits to our teaching assistants and instructional aids, a move that will reduce their annual pay in some cases from $20,000 per year to $10,000 per year simply because some of them don’t have the initials B.A. in their resume. As a result, we could lose critical veteran staff that daily work hands-on with students.
Another problem with affordability that may come as a surprise to some is per pupil expenditure. We often hear the administration bragging about how low it is for such an outstanding education. But parents, particularly with multiple children in the system, understand what a fallacy this is. With locker fees, field trip fees, and even fees for textbooks and classroom supplies, parents are left paying a second tax. We’ve talked with parents whose out-of-pocket cost per student range between $200 to $1,000 per year.
A closer look at the proposed instrumental music program also reveals that not enough funds or manpower have been allocated to implement it. Indeed music teachers have been informed that fundraising will be necessary to purchase the required instruments. Also, more than one teacher is needed to teach a classroom of 20+ children varying instruments, never mind varying abilities and motivational levels. So when talking about affordability, let’s make sure we can afford to implement proposed programs the right way, without placing unnecessary burden on parents and the teachers who are in the trenches.
The education budget this year exceeds $34 million and represents approximately 70 percent of the entire town budget. The majority of residents funding this budget do not have children in the schools, a fact that creates tension and annual opposition to the school budget. The primary problem is that residents-especially senior citizens on fixed incomes-don’t know where the money goes and the school administration has made has made little effort to show them. These seniors aren’t against education. Likewise, both of us have two children in the system and certainly want the best for them, but we also want to be assured that our tax dollars are going where we were told it would go. If these promises were kept and accounted for, a bridge of trust would be built between the Board of Education and the taxpayers.
This could be accomplished relatively easily by the Board of Education making quarterly reports to the Board of Finance. Those reports should be readily available to the public, alongside that respective year’s budget. This way, the public can see if allocated money is going where promised. And if not, why?
Also the salaries and benefits of all employees of the Board of Education should be easily accessible to the public. But they are not. Our written request to obtain employment contracts for administrators was an exercise in bureaucratic frustration. Only after we engaged in a “goose chase” and paid a fee did we obtain them. East Lyme residents deserve full disclosure. After all, it’s their money we’re spending.
The natural question to follow is how can such an accounting be made available to the public in a realistic, affordable, and on-going way? Answer: the Internet. By posting such information to the town’s website, most residents could receive the accounting they deserve. Hard copies should be available at town hall for those without Internet access.
Just as the Internet can provide accessibility for a budgetary accounting, so can the Internet improve accessibility by posting Board of Education meeting times including subcommittee meeting and meeting agendas. Likewise minutes from BOE meeting should be posted in a timely manner. Currently, posted minutes from BOE meeting are two years old. By improving accessibility, the citizens of East Lyme will feel less shut out.
The Internet solves access to documents. But parental access to administrators and BOE members requires a change in the way people do business. Countless parents have had the frustration of calling, emailing or writing the superintendent’s office, only to get a very delayed, cursory response, or no response whatsoever.
By improving affordability, accountability, accessibility, we can work together to build a bridge of trust between the East Lyme Board of Education and their constituency. Upon that bridge will cross the children of East Lyme. By striving for excellency – straight A’s to be exact – that bridge will sustain the weight it needs to our children’s education.