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Facing fewer students and less revenue, Bow School District pitches larger budget with some key cuts

Facing mandatory new pension costs and revenue declines tied to dwindling enrollment, Bow School District officials will ask residents Friday to back a budget that is slightly larger than the current year’s, but that contains some substantial cuts, including to special education.

The other looming question is whether voters will approve the first phase of a partnership agreement with the Dunbarton School District, which sends its middle and high school students to Goffstown but is considering other arrangements as its contract ends next year. The pact, which has to also be approved by Dunbarton residents next week, would provide Bow with a drastic – some say critical – bump in enrollment, which could stave off future budget cuts and staff reductions.

“If Dunbarton comes, that will certainly help,” Superintendent Dean Cascadden said, referencing the district’s sinking student population; high school enrollment has dipped more than 20 percent since 2007. “If Dunbarton doesn’t come, we’ll have to keep doing what we did this year.”

Which was trim spending in several areas of the budget. According to the district’s proposal, the school board and administration whittled more than $156,000 in special education funding and $166,000 in utility, debt service and salary expenditures from the current year’s budget. They are asking for roughly $25 million for the 2013-14 school year – less than a 1 percent increase from this year’s budget.

Still, the district has taken two serious financial hits that have resulted in declining revenue and higher costs, and, if the budget is approved, would mean a 62 cent increase on the tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property value.

With the state cutting its contributions to public employee retirement costs, the district’s retirement and health insurance costs for next year will rise by $637,407.

The district is also about to lose $559,148 in grant funding because of continued enrollment declines.

Robert Louf, who chairs the school board, said his board and administrators have in no way “gutted” the budget, but they have combed through it carefully, eliminating anything that isn’t essential. For example, he said, one initiative proposed in the original draft was to upgrade the announcement kiosk in front of the high school with a digital interface.

“A nice idea,” he said. “But just not something for this year.”

Perhaps the most controversial cuts this year are to special education. Included in the reductions is the elimination of eight special education aides – one at the elementary school, three at the middle school and four at the high school – despite the fact that special education enrollment has not changed.

At a public meeting on the budget last month, Cascadden said, a number of parents voiced concern that the district risks sacrificing the quality of care it provides students with special needs for savings.

Both Cascadden and Louf acknowledged that anxiety but said they believe the district can deliver comparable quality with less funding. That could mean combining services for students with similar schedules or exploring cheaper alternatives for technical needs such as audio assistance hardware.

Cascadden said he expects most of the staffing cuts – in addition to the aides, the district has proposed cutting one teaching position each from kindergarten, first and second grade – to come via attrition, either through retirements or the traditionally high turnover rate for aide positions. The details of the staffing cuts are fuzzy because it’s not yet clear how much funding the district will have to work with or how many people will leave at the end of the year.

Asked how the staff has reacted thus far to the proposed reductions, Cascadden said they have been understanding for the most part. “They know we’ll handle it in as sensitive a way as possible,” he said. “But we’ve been doing this ever since I’ve been here. This has become the new normal.”

Enrollment has been declining in Bow for years. There are 1,425 students currently enrolled in the district, 395 fewer students than 10 years ago.

An influx of Dunbarton students in grades seven through 12 would boost enrollment at the high school to roughly its 2010 size – about 600 students – in 2014. But with an agreement still in question, the administration and school board are bracing for slimmer class sizes and available resources, and this year may provide a preview of those to come if Dunbarton decides against sending its students to Bow.

Cascadden, who has served as superintendent since 2007, said he has grown used to trimming budgets because of a smaller student population, but he noted that this was “the first year we had to go beyond just enrollment-based cuts.”

In addition to the staffing and special education cuts, the district has also proposed reducing its bus routes from three to two, and to cut funding to certain groups and programs, such as the school newspaper and indoor track.

“Basically, we just looked at what programs people like and subscribe to and what are those that have low numbers,” Cascadden said.

The district’s annual meeting will start at 7 p.m. in the Bow High School auditorium.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or
jblackman@cmonitor.com.)

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