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Proposal to cut nearly $1 million from school budget fails

Last modified: 4/26/2013 11:07:30 AM
A motion to cut the Merrimack Valley School District budget by about $988,000 was defeated last night in a secret ballot vote, 274-63.

“I feel very happy with the decision,” said Mark Hutchins, school board chairman. “I think it reflects our collective assessment of what the voters want in our school district.”

The nearly $1 million cut, proposed by Roy Merrill of Loudon, would have level funded the budget with last year’s. After the cut failed, the proposed $36 million budget was approved by a voice vote. Before the vote, board finance committee Chairman Troy Cowan outlined what $1 million in cuts would mean – about 20 to 25 layoffs. If the board cut vocational education, co-curricular activities, athletics, the school resource officer, student mentoring services and the wellness center, the budget would still be $50,000 shy of $1 million, he said.

“Level funding this budget tonight will result in a district that looks very different than it does today,” he said.

The difference from last year’s budget comes from an additional $450,000 in retirement contributions, $220,000 in health care costs and $450,000 from the second year of teacher and administrator costs. Those were partially offset by $300,000 less in building improvement money.

Fewer than 10 residents stood up to speak during the debate, with several asking about the cost of the International Baccalaureate program and the yearly fund balance. Questions about Superintendent Mike Martin’s salary and bond interest payments also came up. Lorieal Jordan-Foote, president of the teachers union, asked about the future effect of layoffs.

Ken Ross-Raymond, chairman of Salisbury’s board of selectmen, asked about the district assessment number, which is what taxpayers actually pay. It’s projected at $19.8 million, about $1.5 million more than last year. The assessment listed in the budget is a worst-case scenario, board members said, because there is usually leftover money at the end of the year. Last year taxpayers got $613,000 back.

Ross-Raymond and Bill Murphy, a member of Boscawen’s budget committee, asked why there is a surplus if the budget is as tight as possible.

“It is not logical to believe that the reduction will be significant, given that the current budget is supposed to be bare-bones to start with,” Murphy said.

The surplus is there for new needs that may arise. If an increased number of special education students are in the district, for example, there needs to be a cushion so the district can provide adequate services, Cowan said.

Murphy also asked about the hidden costs of IB, but school administrators said it all comes from grant funding. He asked the board to present a breakdown of funding for all IB-related activities with next year’s budget.

Steve Jackson of Loudon credited the board for being prepared with answers, but he wasn’t satisfied with the budget. The towns continue to cut budgets or put off buying new fire trucks and repairing roads because people can’t afford the taxes, he said, and board members should remember they are elected by taxpayers. Jackson said he works as a Realtor and has helped people move because they can’t afford to pay their taxes.

“Yes we are a property tax-based state, this is the way we’ve chosen to fund our education, but we’re creating a lot of homeless people,” he said. “We have a school board here that year after year cannot find a way to give us some relief.”

Liz Blanchard, a Penacook resident and Concord city councilor, said a lack of state funding is to blame for the increase and urged people to vote against the cut.

“I would strongly recommend that you not vote for this motion to amend the budget because we provide not just an adequate education for our students, but we provide an excellent education and we should be proud of it,” she said.

After the budget passed, every other warrant article passed without debate, including the approval of a three-year contract for support staff. It will cost $605,823 over the next three years, with $239,806 in the first year. Voters also approved $700,000 for food services and special education programs, but that money doesn’t come from taxpayers.

William Renauld of Penacook, Thomas Godfrey of Webster, Caroletta Alicea of Boscawen and Mark Hutchins of Salisbury were all re-elected to the board.

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


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