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Pushing for answers: Pembroke officials explain $1 million budget shortfall

  • William Allaire speaks during a special budget committee meeting Thursday evening at Pembroke Academy. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Budget committee members, including Michael Connor (center), refer to handouts as SAU 53 business administrator Amber Wheeler breaks down changes in the budget for Pembroke schools during a special budget committee meeting Thursday evening at Pembroke Academy on Nov. 2, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • SAU 53 business administrator Amber Wheeler (right) breaks down changes in the budget for Pembroke schools during a special budget committee meeting Thursday evening at Pembroke Academy on Nov. 2, 2017. Co-superintendent Patty Sherman (center) and school board member Dan Driscoll were also present. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Budget committee vice chairman Gerry Fleury asks SAU 53 business administrator Amber Wheeler a question during a special budget committee meeting Thursday evening at Pembroke Academy on Nov. 2, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • School board member Dan Driscoll (left to right), co-superintendent Patty Sherman, and SAU 53 business administrator Amber Wheeler attended a special budget committee meeting Thursday evening at Pembroke Academy on Nov. 2, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, November 02, 2017

Some called for a change of leadership on Thursday night when nearly 200 residents turned out to Pembroke Academy to give school officials an earful about an unexpected $1 million shortfall in the district’s budget.

The district received less than expected in state aid and Medicaid reimbursements, but the single greatest revenue shortfall was $737,000 less than anticipated in tuition to Pembroke Academy from sending towns, SAU 53 business administrator Amber Wheeler told the public and budget committee members, who had called the night’s special meeting.

With more choice available to a student population that is itself steadily shrinking, local public schools are seeing steep declines in enrollment, she said.

“There’s more options for students than there were in the past. And so many more students are doing other things. Like attending (alternative high school) PACE, like doing homeschooling, like going to charter schools,” Wheeler said.

The school district must budget for the following year based on enrollment predictions, she said, and the number of students at the high school can change from day-to-day as students move or opt for alternatives.

When budget committee member Karen Yeaton pressed her as to why predictions were so off this year when they hadn’t in the past, and asked Wheeler if she could guarantee the situation wouldn’t repeat itself next year, Wheeler answered she couldn’t.

“No, I cannot,” she said.

“I think you need a change in leadership then,” Yeaton responded to applause.

Patty Sherman, the co-superintendent of SAU 53, who was seated next to Wheeler, said nothing in response – and for the whole of the evening – but Dave Doherty, a school board member, rose to the administrative team’s defense.

“We have full confidence in the leadership in the SAU and we have full confidence in the job that Amber’s doing,” he said.

Budget committee members also wondered why they found out about the shortfall at tax setting, and not far in advance.

“If you could have known this, six months or nine months ago, you could have taken action to save up the extra money. The tax bills are going to go up in a few days – there’s no time,” said Gerry Fleury, the budget committee’s vice-chairman. Another noted the committee had met as recently as Oct. 15, when they’d heard nothing about the matter.

School board chairman Dan Driscoll answered the board had been notified at their last meeting, about two weeks prior.

Over a dozen residents came to speak at the meeting’s conclusion. Some complained generally about the impact of ever-increasing property taxes, especially for those on fixed incomes. Several echoed Yeaton’s call for a change in district leadership.

“I saw my mother, my grandmother, and my mother-in-law go through this. They had to move out of their house, that they wanted to retire in, and die in, because they couldn’t pay their taxes,” said one resident, William Allaire. “This kind of a mistake is unacceptable. And I’m going to go with President Trump – whoever is responsible, you should be fired.”

Others defended school officials, arguing they had a near-impossible job to do.

“Sounds like the folks from the school are tasked each year, well before the budget it voted on, in predicting the future, basically,” said Pembroke resident Andy Camidge. “Frankly I’m kind of surprised that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. I think it was very unfair to ask Amber for a guarantee that this wouldn’t happen again.”

The tax rate in Pembroke will go up to $29.76 per $1,000 this year. That’s a relatively moderate tax rate increase over this year, where the tax rate was $29. But tax bills will spike, because valuations went up by about 10 percent town-wide.