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Merrimack Valley board will face call to cut $1 million at annual district meeting

Voters will be faced with the choice of cutting about $1 million from the Merrimack Valley School District’s budget at tonight’s annual meeting.

“I will make that request,” said Ken Ross-Raymond, chairman of Salisbury’s board of selectmen.

Ross-Raymond and other voters have repeatedly asked the board to present a budget with no increase throughout the budget process, but the board has stated that the only way to make a cut of that size would be to lay off staff. The proposed budget is about $36 million, which is up $988,000, or 2.7 percent, from last year’s budget. Leading up to tonight’s meeting, Ross-Raymond and other budget opponents have been circulating fliers to residents of the five towns, asking them to attend the annual meeting to vote. The board is prepared to provide general information on what $1 million in cuts would mean – likely the elimination of 25 to 30 positions in the district, said Troy Cowan, chairman of the board’s finance committee.

“We’re in a position where any more cuts, they’re going to be painful,” Cowan said. “Really, we’ve run out of other options other than layoffs, for the most part.”

The increases in this year’s district budget come from an additional $450,000 in retirement contributions, more than $200,000 in increased health insurance costs and the second year of teacher and administrator contracts, which were approved last year. Board members said they’ve made so many discretionary cuts over the past several years that there are few things left to cut without damaging the quality of education. Over the past several years, for example, the board has cut 11 positions through attrition, the elimination of elective courses at the high school and the summer reading program, and it has decreased funding for athletic programs.

Bill Murphy, a member of Boscawen’s budget committee, handed out fliers Saturday urging people to attend the meeting. He said he understands that the board is in a tough spot, and downshifted costs from the state have put a burden on local districts, but he believes board members aren’t really listening to taxpayers’ concerns. Murphy said he’ll vote to cut the budget but doesn’t think it will go through.

“The school board is between a rock and a hard place, there’s really no doubt about it, but I think . . . they could use this as a little bit more of a wake-up call and say, ‘Okay, we understand it, we’re going to do a better job and just listen,’ ” Murphy said. “I think that the budget is going to go through and it’s going to go through exactly the way that it’s proposed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stand up and say, ‘Hey, you need to listen to us.’ ”

The International Baccalaureate program, transportation costs and salaries and benefits have been cited by budget critics as areas where spending could be reduced. A group of residents has asked the board to look into contracting bus services, but board members have said that savings in the short term could still lead to higher transportation costs down the road.

“I think the response we’re looking for is, ‘Yes, we have looked, we’ve asked for an estimate on these costs, actually there’s no savings.’ We’d be happy with that answer, but they’re not asking the people that provide the service,” Ross-Raymond said. “They’ve made it pretty obvious to us that they’re not going to ask; even if we suggest areas they could look at, they won’t look at it.”

Throughout the contentious budget season, board members have said the budget can’t be cut further without hurting MV students. Tonight, it’s time for the voters to have their say.

“We believe it’s a responsible budget, given the conditions that we have been under (during) the last several years, and we’re moving forward with it,” said board Chairman Mark Hutchins. “We’ll let the voters decide whether they agree with us or not.”

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

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