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Residents call on MVSD board to present level-funded budget

A handful of residents from Merrimack Valley School District towns made sharp calls for the school board to bring a level-funded budget to the March annual meeting after hearing a presentation on the proposed $36 million budget last night.

“I think it’s time that you take a hard line on this and stop increasing the budget every year,” said Loudon resident Roy Merrill.

But following the hearing, the board voted unanimously to move forward with the proposed budget. The finance committee, however, will meet Monday to begin developing information about what a $1 million cut to level fund the budget would do, in case a voter proposes that at the March meeting. Eliminating positions would likely be a big part of reducing the budget.

The proposed budget is more than $36 million, which is up 2.7 percent, or $988,631, from last year’s budget. The increase comes from an additional $450,000 in retirement costs, $220,000 in health care costs, and the second year of teacher and administrator contracts approved last year. Another warrant article proposes an additional $239,806 as the first year of a three-year contract with support staff.

Calls to level fund the budget have been made by selectmen from Salisbury and residents of other district towns for several months, but last night’s meeting brought in a greater array of voices. Teachers, selectmen and residents voiced their opinions, with several expressing support for the work the board has done. They focused on what further cuts to the budget would mean for the district and its students, as well as the negative effects on taxpayers.

Tom Mullins, a former Webster selectman, said the board should have made the proposed budget available earlier so people could have time to comb through it before the hearing. Ken Ross-Raymond, Salisbury selectmen chairman, said he has repeatedly asked to see a level-funded budget and the board has not presented one. Karen Sheldon, a Salisbury selectwoman, requested the board bring two budgets to the annual meeting: the one they have already proposed and a budget with a zero percent net increase.

The board can only submit one warrant article regarding the budget at the annual meeting, which prompted the discussion on what it should prepare if someone makes a motion for a drastic cut. Finance committee Chairman Troy Cowan, who presented the proposed budget, said the board owed taxpayers answers to what the cuts would mean, and providing concrete examples might help people to understand how drastic they are.

Other board members thought debating further cuts would weaken district morale. Board member Lorrie Carey, also a state representative from Boscawen, said the board needs to defend its hard work.

“We’ve got a damn good school district, and I think we need to say that,” she told the board following the public hearing.

Steve Jakubowski of Loudon acknowledged that high taxes are difficult on taxpayers, but he said the district must pay people competitively and keep funding extracurricular activities for the students’ benefit. Bruce Johnson and Roy Fanjoy, both Webster selectmen, also commended the board on their hard work and said they supported the proposed budget.

During the past several years, the budget has cut a handful of programs and positions in order to keep the budget as lean as possible, Cowan told the group. Among those cuts are 11 positions through attrition, fewer elective courses at the high school, a 30 percent decrease in funding for athletic supplies, the summer reading program, covering Advanced Placement test fees, infrastructure repairs and technology updates.

All of this year’s increases come from things the district cannot control. The $450,000 addition in retirement costs is the result of the state downshifting costs – accounting for 45 percent of the budget’s net increase. This year is also the second year of contracts for teachers and administrators, which accounts for an increase in $409,500 for teacher benefits and $33,524 for administrator salaries and benefits. Those cannot be changed as they were already approved in last year’s budget process.

At the heart of calls to level fund the budget is the tax burden it places on local property owners. Merrill, of Loudon, said it’s unfair that elderly people have to face the burden of high property taxes when they aren’t sending anyone to school. Taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet, he said, and continued increases are frustrating.

Carey said the audience’s concerns were making a good argument for a broad-based income tax. New Hampshire is one of the richest states in terms of take-home pay, she said, yet people are struggling to pay the tax bills on their property.

“We don’t have an income tax. That’s why people are feeling poor, they’re being taxed on their property,” she said. “I’ve never been a proponent of income tax, but tonight’s arguments have made me see another side.”

The board will present the finalized warrant articles to voters March 7 at the annual meeting. All other meetings of the school board, including Monday’s finance committee meeting, are open to the public.

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

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