After voting down more art teachers, Ridgefield school board OKs budget plan with $4 million increase

Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva at Ridgefield High School on January 20, 2023.

Ridgefield Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva at Ridgefield High School on January 20, 2023.

Arnold Gold/Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — After a nearly two-hour heated debate over increasing art education in the schools, the Ridgefield Board of Education overwhelmingly approved the superintendent's proposed 2023-24 budget.

While one board member proposed adding more art teachers and another abstained from the final vote at the Monday night meeting, most board members came to an agreement on keeping the current number of art teachers.

The proposed budget totals $110.6 million — a 3.79 percent increase, or about $4 million more, than the current fiscal year's budget of $106.6 million.  

"This budget is the most transparent I've seen. I appreciate the hard work and the sharp pencils from the entire team that went into (it)," board member Sean McEvoy said. "I strongly urge us pass the budget as planned and strongly urge us to spend a lot of time with the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance to see it through as it stands right now."

The pushback to the budget came from some parents, community members and board members who said there is not enough art instruction in the elementary schools and requested adding two art teachers to the budget.

In the 2020-21 school year, the district cut the number of art teachers from six to three for its six elementary schools and then added one position back in the 2021-22 school year. This school year, each elementary school student gets visual art instruction for 45 minutes on a six-day cycle. 

Guidelines from the National Art Education Association's "Purposes, Principles and Standards for School Art Programs," say elementary students should receive a minimum of one 50-minute art class per week. 

Parents and others said they would like one full-time art teacher in each elementary school, with more than a dozen people speaking at meetings and more than 40 people sending in letters on the issue of art instruction. 

Adding two art teachers?

At Monday's meeting, board member Thomas Colin proposed amending the superintendent's budget plan to add two art teachers. 

That would enable the teacher to be "a full-time part of the building community. Each building has its own culture to some degree," Colin said. "A dedicated arts teacher in each building is an important part of that culture. Just like the other teachers, that dedicated art teacher would be available, if necessary, to his or her students, each and every day of the school week."

Adding two full-time art teachers would have cost $200,000 to $220,000, with a salary of $80,000 and benefits of $20,000 to $30,000 for each, Superintendent Susie Da Silva said.

However, Colin's proposal was voted down, 2-7, by board members.

McEvoy asked how time would be carved out of the school day for the proposed added art instruction.

"Where do we find this time magically? What are we taking that time out of or are we going to start school 30 minutes early?" he said.

Da Silva said, "That's our challenge. So operationally, ... it'll either have to come from a core ... or it would come from an essential."

There's some "wiggle room" in the existing art teachers' schedules to increase the amount of art instruction without adding two more art teachers, she said. However, the teachers wouldn't be able to hold an additional section of art with their current schedule, as is, Da Silva said.

The elementary school principals, though, don't want to add more art at this moment, she said.

"I trust that if this was something that the principals felt that they needed, they would have come during the budget process because they're not shy," Da Silva said. "They're very close to their schools, to their schedules and to what students need."

Board member Selena Bell, who was the only board member who abstained from the budget vote, said the art teachers would become burned out if more classes were added to their existing schedules.

"When we say they add more to their plates ... they can, but that means they won't be able to do the art shows. They won't be able to do some of the really cool stuff that they're doing. ... We need to remember that we cannot burn out our teachers. They are human beings, too," Bell said.

Other budget items, next steps

Other budget items, which were not discussed at the meeting, include salaries for noncertified and certified staff. That makes up about 60 percent of the budget plan — totaling about $66 million, of which $13.6 million is for noncertified staff members such as a secretary, paraeducator and data specialist. 

Additionally, the budget calls for salary increases of about 10 percent for noncertified staff, which would total $1.3 million.

The cost of employee benefits would rise to about $21 million, up by about 2.25 percent or about $454,000 from the current budget. Employee benefits account for about 19 percent of the total proposed budget.

Transportation costs would go up about $129,000, or 2 percent, from this year's budget, totaling about $6.6 million and accounting for about 6 percent of the total plan.

Energy costs are budgeted to increase by about $557,000 or about 20 percent from this year — totaling about $3.4 million. 

The proposed 2023-24 Board of Education budget goes to the Board of Selectmen and Board of Finance. If approved, it will be voted on by Ridgefield residents.