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Byars Presents 2021 Amity Budget

Byars Presents 2021 Amity Budget

District Funds Technology Updates and SRO’s, Addresses Social Needs

After several years of moderate budget increases, the Amity Regional School District is requesting a 3.95% increase for the 2020-21 school year.

Woodbridge will be particularly hard hit in this budgeting cycle, as in addition to the budget increase, the town will be sending more students to the Amity system compared to the current school year, while neither Orange nor Bethany have seen similar increases in their student population.  For Woodbridge the 2020-21 Amity budget — if adopted — translates into an increase of more than $1 million, or 6.82% over the town’s current contribution.

According to this budget proposal, Bethany will contribute $9.13 million, Orange will pay $25.36 million and Woodbridge will contribute just under $16 million.  The total budget as presented is for $51.5 million.  To go into effect, the Amity budget must be approved by referendum in all three member towns.  This year it is scheduled for Tuesday, May 5.

“The budget is the first since 2014-15 in which the requested amount exceeds contractual increases,” said School Supt. Dr. Jennifer Byars when she presented the budget at the joint meeting of the Woodbridge Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance in January.  “Six consecutive years of budget requests below contractual increases has resulted in needs in technology, security, and facilities that can no longer be postponed.”

The budget proposal would not only allow the district to maintain the excellence in education it is known for, but improve security by hiring two School Resource Officers, one for each of the two middle schools.  The budget would also allow updates to its IT network and expand the personal laptops for students; it would also allow the district to hire an additional social worker at the middle school level.

Budget summary:  As in most education budgets, salaries and benefits make up two-thirds of the whole pie.  The increase projected for ’20-’21 is $646,000, a number that includes 3 new full-time certified positions; two 10-month positions for special education coordinators; one social worker and one computer technician.

Purchased services is up by $580,000 and includes funding for the two SROs and technology infrastructure.  Special education costs are projected to spike by $843,000, a number that includes tuition and transportation.

Debt services is lower by $105,000 compared to this year.  However, this budget does not yet include the cost incurred by the capital improvements residents approved in December 2019.

Technology:  Dr. Byars emphasized the need for technology updates.  “Our infrastructure is just not up to speed with what we want to do,” she said.  All the schools’ systems are computer-based, including heating and cooling, as well as security, the phone system and a large percentage of the teaching tools.  It could put the district in real peril should the system fail.

The district is also proposing to continue expanding its “One-on-One” program, which provides each student with a designated mobile computer.  This is Year 3 of four in rolling out the program.  In addition to the $228,000 for student computers there are costs for cases ($17,000) and teacher laptops ($44,947) as well as other scheduled replacements of the existing network.

Since all three elementary districts already provide students with access to personal devices, “it makes sense from an instructional and curricular standpoint that we continue to provide students with access,” the superintendent wrote in an email.  So far, the middle school students already have been provided with personal computers.  Starting with the next school year, the district plans to expand the program to include grades 7 through 10.

“We would continue the roll-out until all our students have devices,” she wrote.  “Students bring their devices to all their classes and unlike the elementary schools, they are also permitted to bring their devices home, since technology is ubiquitous to learning.”

The budget also includes funds towards professional learning for Amity teachers as they implement this program.  In addition, the budget calls for an additional IT technician to support the roll-out.

Resource Officers:  In response to pressure from parents, the budget also includes funds for police protection at the two middle schools.  The two positions are for School Resource Officers, or SROs, who would be embedded in the local police departments.  The high school already is covered by an SRO from the Woodbridge Police Department.  It is this connection with local police why this cannot be a shared position; nor would the district be able to hire security personnel as done elsewhere, she said.  In Bethany, which has state Barracks I but no local police force, the SRO would report to Resident State Trooper David Merriam, Byars said.

Social Worker:  In response to an increased level of anxiety and depression that has been described in students nation-wide, Amity is looking to hire an additional social worker at the middle school level.  A youth survey taken in 2018 showed that local students are struggling with some of the same issues as their peers in other parts of the country.  This was the first time the survey looked at anxiety.  “The results suggest we need more social and emotional and mental health support in our schools,” Byars said, adding that the right person can help students and their families work through some of those challenges.

The following survey results were shared with the Amity Board of Education and PTSOs last year.

Percent of Students Reporting Often or Always

Grade 7 9 11
Feeling nervous, anxious or on edge 28 54 51
Not being able to stop worrying 22 41 40
Worrying too much about different things 32 52 49
Having trouble relaxing 21 35 36
Feeling irritable or getting annoyed easily 25 47 48
Feeling like something awful might happen 18 34 30

Byars said that the need for social work support services also were part of the recommendations from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation report for Amity High School.  The recommendation was to “ensure that social work support services are adequate to meet students’ mental health needs.”

This social work position is intended to support the middle schools and would be split between the Orange and Bethany middle school campuses.  Long-term the District is planning to add a second social worker to the high school as well.

Other Hires:  Byars also is looking to hire middle school pupil services coordinators who would function as a transition coordinator for special education students preparing to enter the high school.

Text Books:  Technology notwithstanding, the district still upgrades its textbooks.  Between the three schools, it has budgeted for a total of $240,790 (compared to $220,713 this school year), with an emphasis on new science text books.  It also includes new textbooks for Math classes and World Language classes.

During her presentation, Dr. Byars also pointed out several initiatives that got deferred in an effort to keep increases low.  “We cut a math interventionist.  We cut IT.  We are not replacing athletic equipment, we are not replacing band equipment,” she said.

The district also is not instituting STAR testing in grade 11.  These are assessments in reading and math, which are administered three times a year and due to its quick turn-around can inform teachers about their students’ progress and help direct the instruction.  The STAR testing also is used at the elementary level in Woodbridge and Orange, which allows parents to follow the growth of each student from grade school through high school.

They are not the basic state-required standardized assessments such as Smarter Balance from grades 3 through 8; School Day SAT for grade 11 and the state science test in grades 8 and 11.  Amity also provides the opportunity for 10th grade students to take the pre-ACT and for 11th grade students to take the PSAT.

As part of her presentation, Dr. Byars pointed out how the towns’ financial support has helped build excellence in all “Three A’s” — Academics, Athletics and the Arts.

Amity placed first in New Haven County in terms of academics, and fourth in the state, Dr. Byars said.  In terms of its teachers, it ranks fifth in the state.  Close to half of the student population enrolls in Advance Placement (AP) classes and 92% of graduates go on to attend a four-year college.

In the athletics, the girls Volleyball team last year clinched the SCIAC Class LL championship, and three other teams made it to state tournament runners-up.  In all, the school counted 24 All-State Student Athletes, Byars said.

In the Arts, 15 students from Middle School in Bethany recently qualified for the Southern Regional Middle School Band, Choir and Orchestra.  Last spring, the high school production of “Catch Me If You Can” got 8 nominations at the Sondheim Awards, with an award going to Andrea Kennedy for her choreography.

“This proposed budget is a clear indication of our efforts to offer the excellent educational programs and services that are consistent with Amity Board of Education goals, community expectations and are delivered in the most cost-effective manner, the superintendent wrote in her summary.

By Bettina Thiel – Orange Town News Correspondent

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