'New teacher contract, budget approved'

Last modified: 3/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
Residents yesterday okayed a two-year teachers contract, a new charter school and a $23.8 million operating budget for the Pembroke School District. But the upcoming state budget cast a shadow over the district's annual meeting, with officials and voters worried about downshifted costs and revenue cuts.

Mark LePage, chairman of the budget committee, called it 'the 800-pound gorilla in the corner,' and said that while the final state budget is months away, the district stands to lose about $1.7 million in anticipated revenue under Gov. John Lynch's proposed budget. The district would also take on an additional $450,000 in expenses.

That would turn a reduction of $1.77 per $1,000 in the school tax rate, as projected under the budget and other spending items approved yesterday, into an increase of $1.20 from last year's school tax rate of $14.99, LePage estimated.

'It's the uncertainty and the magnitude of things' that are different from past years, he said, and much could still change as the Legislature takes up the budget.

'We have no knowledge of what a worst-case scenario would be,' LePage said.

Pembroke's schools budget was put together before Lynch unveiled his state budget proposal last month, and the proposed district budget of $23.8 million was approved by voters with little rancor. It represents an increase of nearly 1.2 percent from the budget approved last year.

Budget committee member Mike Connor offered an amendment to slice $275,421 from the coming year's operating budget, which would have kept it flat from the current budget.

'It's a pretty mild reduction,' Connor said, but the amendment failed on a show of voter cards, tallied at 47-64. The original budget proposal then passed with a handful of 'no' votes.

School board member Thomas Serafin said it'll be up to the board to 'live within that bottom line' and sort out the finances once the state budget is finalized, though he said officials could seek to hold a special district meeting later this year.

Voters also approved a new two-year contract for the teachers' union. The contract doesn't include a cost-of-living raise but does include step increases and will cost the district about $222,500 next year and $361,900 in 2012-2013 for additional salary and benefits.

The path to a new contract was a long and contentious one, with negotiations starting in September 2009, noted Clint Hanson, chairman of the school board. Teachers have been working this year without a contract.

Much of the wrangling, which spilled over into proceedings before the state Public Employee Labor Relations Board, was over the state's evergreen law, which kept step increases in place even after a union contract expired. Hanson was a vocal opponent of the law, which has been repealed by the new Republican-led Legislature.

'That issue is no longer part of this discussion,' Hanson said.

He called the final contract 'well worth the wait' and 'fair and reasonable for both parties.' It was ratified by the 155-member union and voters approved it with little opposition.

Also approved at yesterday's meeting, which lasted under 2« hours, was the creation of a district-sponsored charter school, PACE Career Academy, intended as an alternative program to help improve the graduation rate.

Pembroke Academy headmaster Michael Reardon said the charter school would help reduce the dropout rate, which is about 1.6 to 1.7 percent a year, and ensure 'that every student who walks through the doors of Pembroke Academy will graduate in four years, if not sooner.'

The school will be financed by tuition payments from school districts that send students there, as well as a $613,000 start-up grant from the state, Reardon said. He said the school's location is still to be determined.

Dan Crean, a member of the budget committee, expressed concern that many details, including the leadership and long-term financing model of the new school, were still up in the air.

'My personal view is that this is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, trying to figure out what this creature would be,' Crean said. He added, 'Certainly, this is not a bad idea . . . but I think it's the wrong time and wrong place for it right now.'

But residents did vote, on a show of cards, to spend up to $72,000 a year to send up to eight students to the charter school, which would be run by a board of trustees and not by the district or School Administrative Unit 53. It could open its doors as early as this fall.

The meeting also approved issuing $510,000 in bonds to replace a section of the roof at Pembroke Academy. The measure carried on a ballot vote, 123-13, achieving the two-thirds required under state law.

In addition, residents okayed spending $12,000 from an existing fund to replace flooring in four classrooms, and passed four measures earmarking any surplus money from the current year's budget into various reserve funds.

Pembroke voters will go to the polls Tuesday to elect officers for the district. Hanson and fellow incumbent Richard Mitchell face Patricia Nardone Boucher and Becky Wing in a race for two board seats, each for a three-year term. Incumbent Janna Culberson and Michael Scavotto are running for a one-year term on the board.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)

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