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Bow school budget passes, though some residents question lack of cuts

Residents in Bow last night handily passed a new two-year support staff contract and a $26 million school district budget that will have no net tax impact in the coming fiscal year.

The budget is up $1.1 million from this year’s, but the increase will be offset by new tuition revenue from Dunbarton and Hooksett students arriving in the fall, according to district officials.

School board Chairman Robert Louf attributed the increase to new expenses in health benefits and state retirement plans, as well as special education. As to the latter, Louf said the board recognized that special education costs have been spiraling up for years, and has commissioned a study this year to compare that cost to those in other districts and search for possible savings.

The board is also commissioning a full-day kindergarten study over the next year. Stephen Elgert, a resident, suggested they streamline the review and work to bring the program to the district by this fall. He proposed adding $100,000 to the budget to pay for the changes, which would only be used if the board decided to put them in place by the fall. Louf said he worried about rushing into the move. Residents agreed, strongly rejecting the motion.

“I honestly don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel here,” Elgert said. “More and more communities are going to this. I think it’s a competitive disadvantage in Bow to live here and not have a full-day kindergarten.”

A handful of residents questioned why the budget had increased given the continued enrollment drop. Superintendent Dean Cascadden said he had initially hoped it would.

“I was disappointed it wasn’t a decrease this year,” he said. “I thought, we’re going to bring the Dunbarton tuition in, we’re going to bring a budget that is a decrease, the tax rate is going to go down. It went down a penny. . . . But it was even tough to get to that level, because any time you cut a program, people come out and say, ‘You can’t cut that program.’ ”

Salaries continue to make up about 49 percent of the district’s operating budget.

The new contract calls for a 2 percent wage increase in the coming school year – excluding preplanned step increases – bringing the average annual salary for support staff employees to just under $20,000. The raises will cost $84,000 to fund in the first year, and as much as $109,000 in year two. Louf said the town is saving more than $30,000 in the first year because the district can now offer a higher-deductible health care plan.

Enrollment continued to decline this past year. Cascadden said it has dipped 23 percent from 2002 through last year, nearly double the 12 percent drop statewide in the same period. That trend, and the tuition losses tied to it, will be offset this year with the arrival of close to 100 Dunbarton students as part of a new AREA agreement signed last year.

Cascadden said Bow students on average continue to test higher than their counterparts in other districts across the state. He said 93 percent of graduating seniors go on to some college, and 76 percent to a four-year school.

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

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