Retired Dover Middle School counselor Fran Meffen, speaking during a public forum Wednesday night, commended the School Board for prioritizing student mental health with more counselors in its budget plan.
She said that in recent years she has heard about student hospitalizations due to trauma-related issues in their families related to the opioid crisis, as well as food insecurity and poverty, among other issues.
“I can tell you that behavioral interventionists, social workers and school counselors are a vital component of the mental health issues we are having,” she said.
She also emphasized the importance of these services at all ages, including elementary school.
“We need students to have their socio-emotional needs met from a very early age,” she said. “While some people may still have a very sweet image of kindergartners arriving and having no problems, this is definitely not the case. ”
Where Dover’s school budget fits into the city’s overall budget
City of Dover Manager Mike Joyal’s budget, including budgets from all city departments, totaled $183.8 million. The proposed school operating budget of $78.3 million, together with the proposed grant and special income fund budget of $6.2 million, brings the total to $84.5 million – an increase of nearly $ $531,000 over 2023.
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With the city side of the budget falling about $74,000 below the city tax cap, and the school’s portion exceeding the tax cap by nearly $439,000, the overall budget is around $365,000 over the cap, before any changes made by the City Council.
City Council is in the process of hearing from all departments in public meetings, with the police, fire and planning departments presenting budgets on Wednesday night. The board will decide on a final budget in early April. A two-thirds majority of council votes would be required to overturn the council tax cap.
Council hears more defenders of the school budget
Dover resident Jim Verschueren reinforced Meffen’s message during Wednesday’s public hearing.
“What I saw was the School Board thinking carefully about what the school’s greatest needs are and making decisions that meet those needs,” he said.
He urged the board to lift the school budget’s current tax cap.
Verschueren said that despite the requirement for a $2.5 million increase in special education spending, the board has managed to keep the budget below $500,000 above the tax ceiling.
“I want to commend the School Board for that,” he said. “I know we have a lot of things to consider, but I want to ask that you fund the School Board the full amount they asked for.”
Micaela Demeter, a member of the School Board, said that the needs are great.
“To be able to offer a rigorous academic program, we have to address the issue of mental health and that can be very difficult for people, perhaps from an older generation or from a different era, to understand,” she said.
She said older generations might not have the same mental health resources during their school years, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary for students today. She noted that Dover schools plan to cut 11 teacher positions to make room for the new positions added to the budget, which include counselors.
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Enrollment for the 2022-23 school year across all Dover schools is 3,720. There were 3,804 in the previous year. Enrollment was 4,073 in 2014-15 and has gradually declined each year since.
“I think I’m not alone when I say that I didn’t want to recommend cutting 11 teachers,” Demeter said. “The only reason I voted for it is because of the importance of building these mental health supports.”
Demeter said she and her colleagues discussed how much they value smaller class sizes and higher teacher-to-student ratios.
“It says we’re so willing to raise mental health needs in our districts that we’re willing to do it at great cost — the cost of 11 teachers,” she said. “It was a painful vote for me to take.”
School Board member Robin Trefethen acknowledged the importance not only of mental health staff, but also of proposed new jobs to be added to the Career Technical Center, which she described as “bursting at the seams”.
Trefethen also emphasized the need for funding for new library assistance to maintain the schools’ library accreditation, as well as a new high school social studies teacher so they can “have a normal schedule.”
After the meeting, the planning, police and fire departments presented their budgets which will further determine where the council decides to allocate the funds.
Dover FY 2024 Remaining Budget Meeting Schedule
March 22nd: Regular meeting, including a public hearing on part of the city budget.
March 29th: Workshop on Community Service Budgeting.
April 5th: Budget workshop, followed by special budget approval meeting.
April 12th: Ordinary meeting, also set aside as a reserve date for budget adoption, if necessary.
This article originally appeared in Fosters Daily Democrat: Council of Dover urged to pass school budget with mental health boost