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Merrimack Valley School District member towns call for budget restraint

Officials in Salisbury are leading an effort to organize leaders in the Merrimack Valley School District towns to fight increasing school taxes, well before the district’s budget comes to a vote at the annual meeting in March.

“This education budget is like a freight train with no brakes,” said David Merwin, a member of the Salisbury Education Committee, a group of taxpayers that formed in 2010 to scrutinize school funding. He spoke at a meeting earlier this month organized by the Salisbury Budget Committee where selectmen from each town were invited in the hope of setting a course of action. It was the first time such an effort had been made to organize the towns as a group.

The group included members from Salisbury’s board of selectmen, budget and education committees, as well as selectmen from Loudon and Webster and a member of Boscawen’s budget committee. Members of the school board from Salisbury and Webster also attended to share the board’s perspective.

With the exception of Concord, the bulk of each district town’s tax revenue goes toward the schools. Members of the group said they’d like to see the school board work harder to cut costs and keep the budget level funded.

The district’s budget has increased by about $1.9 million, or 5.38 percent, in the past five years, Superintendent Mike Martin said. It is projected to go up by 3 percent for the 2013-14 school year, pending approval by voters in March.

“I think initially, at least this year, we’d like to see the school board make every effort they can to level-fund their budget,” said Ken Ross-Raymond, Salisbury’s selectmen chairman.

He and others who oppose tax increases suggest looking to cut costs in transportation and salaries. Towns and businesses have had to deny raises to employees in the tough economic times, and the school board should take a harder line against raises for teachers and administrators, he said.

“I think the school board members could be more proactive and let the teachers know it’s not a good time to be asking for increases,” Ross-Raymond said.

Contract negotiations are worked out by a school board committee and union representatives. Several members of budget committees in Salisbury and Boscawen feel that the school board members are not fairly representing the taxpayers during those negotiations.

“They’re basically taking and writing checks and signing our names to it, and we’re just supposed to suck it up,” said Bill Murphy, a member of Boscawen’s budget committee who was at the meeting.

School board members say increases in recent years can be attributed to the downshifting of retirement costs from the state to the school districts and increase in health insurance costs. In next year’s proposed budget, for example, every cost the board can control has been level-funded, said Troy Cowan, a school board member from Loudon who serves on the school board’s finance committee.

Dustin Bowles, selectmen chairman in Loudon, said in an interview last week he doesn’t think board members fully grasp how much taxpayers are struggling and should make an effort to make small cuts wherever possible.

“We’re really in some tough times, and I really feel if the schools had to collect their own taxes the same way the towns have to collect it for them, they’d get a better understanding of how these people are out there,” he said.

School board members say the charge that they don’t care about the taxpayers is flat-out wrong. They understand they must strike a balance between providing a high quality of education and not putting too great a burden on taxpayers.

Merrimack Valley School District is about $1,400 below the state average on cost-per-pupil, at $11,697 for the 2011-12 school year, according to data from the state Department of Education. Despite that, the district has made tremendous gains in the quality of education in the past decade, said David Longnecker, a Salisbury representative on the school board. The board strives to keep costs low, but going too low could hurt education, he said.

“I believe with cuts we’re down to bare bone, and you reach a point where continued cuts will have an impact in our capabilities,” he said.

Although selectmen from various towns agreed that taxpayers are struggling, not all are on board with targeting the school district. Bruce Johnson, a Webster selectman and teacher at Webster Elementary School, said the group should focus its efforts on the state. He has met with state representatives and is trying to meet with Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan to talk about the downshifting of costs.

“I think we’re barking up the wrong tree. We really need to go to the State House,” he told organizers at the December meeting. Talking to lawmakers as a group might have a greater effect, he said.

Both sides agree more communication and a better flow of information is key to come to a mutual understanding.

“The school is our teammate and without them we’re lost and without us they’re lost. We need to work with them,” said Craig Saltmarsh, selectmen chairman in Boscawen in an interview last week.

Last year, a move to cut $300,000 from the budget failed. In October 2011, the district held a special meeting to cut $800,000 from the budget because of a loss in revenue.

In the December meeting, members of Salisbury’s budget committee and various selectmen from other towns admitted fault in not attending public meetings where the board discusses the budget. Through the education committee, Salisbury residents have organized efforts in the past against the budget and the district’s International Baccalaureate program. But its efforts to formally join forces with the other communities is new this fall.

Salisbury Budget Committee members said they would send one of their members to every school board finance committee meeting, and most people at the meeting pledged to be more active in the budget process. Bowles, of Loudon, attended the Dec. 10 school board meeting with another Loudon citizen, and the two raised some of these issues with the board.

The school board used to hold meetings with selectmen aside from regular school board meetings, but that stopped after participation began waning. Board members said they will look into starting those meetings again in an effort to be more transparent. Documents related to the budget and committee minutes are also available on the school’s website.

“To me it’s a case of shame on us. Even our board of selectmen did not get involved or not really communicate with the (school) board until a couple years ago,” Ross-Raymond said. “The reason I say shame on us is because that’s where two-thirds of our taxes are going.”

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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