Voters reject teacher contract; move to cut budget also fails
Pembroke voters rejected a two-year teacher contract by a ballot vote of 90-75 at yesterday’s annual district meeting, sending the school board and teachers’ union back to the bargaining table.
“People that do work that they love, they don’t have to get all these big increases,” said voter Rosemarie Michaud. “There’s a lot of people out here that haven’t gotten raises for a number of years, so I just think that saying ‘for the children’ is getting a little too old. Whatever you’re paid, if you love it, you’re doing to do your best at it.”
The contract, which covers 150 people, would have added $448,675 to next year’s budget and $496,227 to the 2014-2015 budget, roughly a 4 percent increase each year. The school board recommended approving the contract, but the budget committee did not.
During debate, voter Karen Dowling held up graphs showing that the budget continues to increase as student enrollment declines and that Pembroke’s tax rate is near the high end statewide. She spoke strongly in favor of rejecting the contract and sending the board back to the negotiating table. Dowling spoke at length and was eventually cut off by moderator Tom Petit.
“I think there’s some wiggle room when we’re talking about affordability,” she said.
Depending on how negotiations go, teacher salaries could be frozen for next year. There could also be a special district meeting to vote on the new contract, said Tom Serafin, school board chairman. Pembroke teachers receive the lowest pay in the school administrative unit, which also includes Allenstown, Chichester, Deerfield and Epsom. Competitive wages are key to building and maintaining a high quality staff, he said. Several audience members greed.
Dan Morris, a seventh-grade teacher at Pembroke Academy, said the district also lags behind the state average in wages and in the number of teachers with advanced degrees.
“I’m concerned about, if this doesn’t pass, attracting the best teachers for our kids,” he said. “What we are above state average in, is students who go on to higher education, so we are getting our money’s worth.”
Jillian Spring, a 2007 graduate of Pembroke Academy, spoke about the great teachers she had as a student, including teachers who put in extra time without pay after school.
“I think it would be a shame if we lost some of these wonderful teachers that I had the opportunity to work with because we chose not to make their wage competitive,” she said.
The budget committee did not recommend the contract because its members felt the overall impact to the tax rate would be too great and that a different cost-of-living index could have been used to make the increase smaller, said Mark LePage, committee chairman.
The vote went to secret ballot after a hand vote was too close to call.
After the contract debate, voter Dan Boyer made a motion to cut the operating budget by $339,000, about half of the proposed 2.9 percent increase. It failed after a spirited debate and voters then approved the proposed $24.97 million budget. The increases come from $385,000 in retirement contributions, $170,000 from FICA and other insurance, $95,000 from previous contract agreements and $90,000 in back costs due to an error by Public Services of New Hampshire.
The board offset those increases in part by eliminating 10 positions through layoffs, including one teacher and nine support staff. Cutting $339,000 could have meant eliminating about seven to eight more positions, Serafin said. Cutting every co-curricular activity, such as sports and music clubs, would only save $80,000, he said. A cut that large would hurt the quality of education, he said.
Dowling, who spoke earlier against the contract, asked why budget increases can’t keep up with the national inflation level.
“Why isn’t it that we can’t take that same bucket of services that we had last year, bring that forward to this year, apply a 1.7 percent increase and be done with it?” she asked.
But LePage said crafting a budget has nothing to do with inflation, and he again stated the increases are largely due to downshifting from the state and other unavoidable increases.
A few voters grew fed up with the debate and spoke strongly against the motion. Budget committee member Gerry Fleury spoke as a resident, not a committee member. He said he’s never happy with increases because he knows it can be hard on taxpayers, but that debating a $339,000 cut was “ludicrous.”
“We need to stop this silly discussion, vote down this amendment and get on with business,” he said.
Steve Boucher, the husband of board member Tammy Boucher, had the final word on the subject.
“Responsible governance to me in this town means we take care of children, we take care of our schools, and this amendment is a joke,” he said.
Voters also approved using $100,950 from reserve funds for school building improvements, adding surplus money to the building reserve fund and instructional materials expendable trust fund, and expanding the equipment expendable trust fund to cover installation and labor costs associated with purchases.