Oysterponds ‘dreams big’ with first budget presentation

Oysterponds Board of Education members were “dreaming big” last week at their first budget planning session for the 2011-12 school year, as board president Deborah Dumont put it during the process.

Rather than burying themselves immediately in details, she said at the March 2 session, the board was starting the process by exploring the big picture of what it wants the district to look like in the years ahead.

The goal, according to Ms. Dumont, was to avoid developing a line-by-line budget without a good understanding of major expenses that will be important to the overall educational process.

At the top of the board’s wish list is a heavy investment in professional development of staff. It’s an area that has been flat in the district’s budget for several years, Ms. Dumont said. It would take hiring a professional consultant to work with administrators, staff and board members to develop an appropriate program, she said.

“We want our school to be a shining star,” acting superintendent and principal Joan Frisicano said.

That takes great leadership from the top, board member Linda Goldsmith said, pointing out that Ms. Frisicano is an interim appointee and the board will need to choose carefully in hiring a part-time superintendent and full-time principal.

What board member Krista de Kerillis wants is for every student to be “pushed” to attain at his maximum capacity. Board member Dorothy-Dean Thomas wants more integrated learning so that the students’ focus isn’t shifted every 20 minutes or so.

Concentration on staff development can help achieve these goals, Ms. Dumont said, but it won’t come cheap.

What’s more, the district has to incorporate the new Response to Intervention program to serve students in need of extra academic help. The program codifies what research-based programs can be employed in the teaching process, leaving little room for individual creativity by teachers, Ms. Frisicano said.

“The more the state interferes, the more our kids are failing,” Ms. Goldsmith said.

“As a country, we have become so testing focused,” Ms. Dumont said. Students are learning to answer questions, but not necessarily to understand material, she said.

Board members want to better involve parents in children’s learning, but recognize that many work and can’t spare time during the school day. Toward that end, they want to expand their website so parents can get a handle on what their children are learning and communicate with teachers and administrators online.

Even as the board looked at the big picture, Ms. Dumont said, a tight rein on the numbers will be crucial, especially because it seems likely the state will soon cap all property tax increases at 2 percent.

But the district is in good shape financially, according to Ms. Dumont, and she  credited her predecessor as president, Walter Strohmeyer, with good fiscal planning. The district has almost $1 million in reserves, some of which can be applied to next year’s budget, she said. She cautioned the board not to depend too much on reserves, nevertheless, because they won’t always be available to make ends meet.

Thanks to cutbacks achieved in the past year — and Mr. Strohmeyer’s insistence last year that the district count on only a third of what it expected to get in state aid — the district probably will not have to spend the $400,000 in reserve funds applied to the current budget, Ms. Dumont said.

Other priorities mentioned at the session included improving the school’s science program, enhancing music and art and starting foreign language instruction for the elementary school students.

With contract talks under way with its teachers, salaries and instructional expenses were slated as topics for the Wednesday, March 9, budget discussion. In the following weeks, board members will be discussing transportation and building and grounds and on March 30, plan an overall budget review.

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