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Finance board reviews Weston school budget

Overview of 2013-14 school budget proposal. —Ian Murren graphic

Overview of 2013-14 school budget proposal. —Ian Murren graphic

The main question being asked at the Weston Board of Finance review of school administrators last week was whether the schools are adequately reducing their workforce and making the best use of facilities and resources to reflect a declining student enrollment.

The finance board spent about three hours reviewing the school district’s 2013-14 budget request of $46,293,668, a 1.55% increase from the current operating budget.

School board chairman Phil Schaefer said his board is in the process of revising the budget based on additional information it has received since first crafting the budget, and it expects to come back with an increase below 1%.

Mr. Schaefer said the board and administration has worked very hard to keep Weston’s educational quality high while bringing forward “very, very low operating budgets… in terms of increases.”

Superintendent Colleen Palmer said the budget team is constantly searching for “the sweet spot” between maintaining high quality and accounting for declining enrollment and new state mandates.

The schools are doing that, she said, by transitioning to “blended learning,” identifying efficiencies, and reallocating resources whenever possible.

Enrollment

The superintendent presented the finance board with a five-year overview of certified staff (teachers) compared with student enrollment. She said it shows a decrease in staffing of 17.28 FTEs (full time equivalents). This can be a reduction in time, not actual people.

“Over time, especially most recently, the district has made a shift to make sure our staffing is in line and is decreasing with the student enrollment, because human resources are the most expensive part of our business,” Dr. Palmer said.

There is about a $1 million per year increase in salaries and benefits built into contracts, Dr. Palmer noted. Counterbalancing that means getting creative to reap savings elsewhere, she said.

Jerry Sargent, chairman of the finance board, took issue, however, with the district’s numbers. Anyone can “craft sheets to make the arguments they want,” he said. The reality when one looks at the budget book, however, he continued, is between 2010 and 2014,  student enrollment is down by nearly 200 kids and total staffing is down by five.

“You’re doing an admirable job managing the budget given the restraints you have and the realities of the union contracts and what [is] built in each year with a systemic built-in gain. However, the enrollment decline is still outpacing what you’re doing, despite your best efforts.”

Dr. Palmer acknowledged that the addition during this current budget year of four additional security guards, as well as some paraprofessionals that are mandated because of special education, “negates some of the savings” from having fewer teachers.

Security guards

The board spent some time discussing changes to security since the Newtown school shootings, including the addition of the four security guards, bringing the total to nine in the district.

Mr. Sargent said his main concern is he sees a “need for a really well thought-out alignment between the police and the security team… Without that alignment, we’ll be less efficient and we’re not using our resources the way we should be using them,” he said.

Dr. Palmer said while there is no written agreement between the school district and the police department, there is an understood protocol in place. The security officers are ex-police officers and understand chain of command issues. During an emergency, the police take charge. “That is very clear,” Dr. Palmer said.

In addition, the schools and police are  working together and having “internal meetings,” facilitated by Jo-Ann Keating, director of finance and operations, to work on safety and security protocols, Dr. Palmer said. Also, a tabletop exercise and training sessions for staff are in the works.

“There has been a real collaboration and a sense of teamwork,” the superintendent said.

Mr. Sargent strongly encouraged the school district to create a written document — an OLA or operations level agreement — between all parties to get a better picture of who is responsible for what, not just during emergencies, but every day. “The more specific the better,” Mr. Sargent said.

Dr. Keating assured the finance board the schools do have “comprehensive emergency protocols” and they are “looking to fine tune what we already have in place.”

Social workers

Finance board member Melissa Koller asked whether the school district had considered dealing with the possibility of “internal threats” by adding social workers rather than security guards.

Dr. Palmer said the district already has a comparatively low student to guidance counselor ratio. Between the guidance staff, school psychologist and social worker shared between the high school and middle school, “we felt we were adequately staffed” to meet the needs of the students.

“That’s one area we have not chipped away at,” she said.

Finance board member Michael Carter brought the discussion back to enrollment by asking what the district is doing to prepare for an even greater drop in enrollment in the next three to five years.

Dr. Palmer said the district is looking at several avenues for consolidating resources. A facilities study is being done and the issue of “shared space definitely needs to be revisited,” she said.

The school district was considering offering the North House portion of Hurlbutt Elementary School to the town for use as municipal office space last year, but put a hold on that after the Newtown shootings.

Mixed use of school buildings does create some issues and problems, she said, but there may come a time soon when the entire building might no longer be needed.

In order to shift kindergarten, first and second graders to another school, however, modifications would have to be made, so that decision needs to be made carefully, she said.

“Our facilities were built for specific grade levels,” so it’s hard to just “swap buildings,” she explained.

Media centers are also changing because of technology, so those areas are being redesigned and re-imagined, Dr. Palmer said.

Blended learning

In addition to facilities, the district is also looking at transitioning to “blended learning” opportunities, which incorporate technology into the learning environment. Classrooms the way they are now will not be the norm in 20 years, she said.

The staff is doing a fantastic job at finding innovative ways to use technology to enhance the curriculum, the superintendent said. They are excited and their excitement is contagious.

“Learning shouldn’t be bounded by the walls of the classroom or the hours of the school day … but it takes time for our workforce to gear up for this,” Dr. Palmer said.

When Mr. Carter asked what prevents the district from accelerating this process, Dr. Palmer got a laugh from all present by her quick response: “The Board of Finance,” she said.

Next steps

The board also reviewed other portions of the budget, including technology leases, insurance, and a proposed new program to address the needs of students struggling with drug and alcohol problems.

“Anything that comes to the school that gets in the way of their education, we own,” the superintendent said of why this program should be the school district’s responsibility.

A video of the entire meeting is available on the town website, westonct.gov.

A public hearing on the proposed school and  town budgets is set for Wednesday, April 3 at 8 p.m. in the Weston Middle School cafeteria.

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