Voters pass budget, boost teacher pay

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 3/23/2022 4:33:02 PM
Modified: 3/23/2022 4:32:10 PM

TILTON — Voters in the Winnisquam Regional School District on Saturday approved the $25.7 million school budget, a three-year contract to boost teacher salaries, and the closure and sale of Union Sanborn School in Northfield, one of the district’s three elementary schools.

But voters fell shy of funding a big-ticket bond issue that would have resulted in long-term savings to make repairs and replacements to eliminate leaks in roofs and siding at school buildings, especially at Winnisquam Regional Middle School.

They also failed to muster enough support to add vocational education programs in precision manufacturing and cosmetology to the Winnisquam Regional Agricultural Center, which serves high school students throughout the Lakes Region and Merrimack Valley. Fifty to 75% of the total project cost would have been paid by funding through the New Hampshire Department of Education, according to an agreement with the NH DOE that committed state funds if district voters approved the bond. Now roughly $1.4 million in center repairs will need to be raised in the future or drawn from capital reserves built up over time.

“I think it’s incredibly disappointing that Articles 1 and 2 failed. It was clearly going to save taxpayers money and make necessary improvements to schools,” said outgoing WRSD school board chair, Jasen Stock, who has served on the board for 16 years and is retiring. “To vote no is just kicking the can down the road.

“The district also missed a tremendous opportunity to position itself in career and technology education for not only our students, but students in the surrounding communities” – a vote which Stock said is shortsighted. Voters looked “at what is important on my tax bill over the next two years and failed to look beyond that and ask, what type of school and education do we want to provide our children?” Referring to Article 2 on increasing regional offerings in career and tech education, he said, “There is a linkage to state funding and a timeline for the state’s capital budget. For all intents and purposes, this article is probably dead. We are no longer eligible for that state aid.”

Nina Gardner, WRSD budget committee chair, said she was gravely disappointed by the failure of both bond issues, but pleased that the budget and teacher contracts passed.

“I think people didn’t want to engage in that kind of long term debt,” Gardner said. “The people added the first and second and came up with $18 million worth of bonding” was untenable, especially to Northfield voters who would be hit most by school tax increases due to the 2022-23 budget alone.

Now, building improvements in Article 1 will have to be addressed piecemeal, increasing the end cost by as much as 50%, school cost experts said. Gardner said installing a sprinkler system at Sanbornton Central School is unlikely to occur until an addition is built there. The district will have to find another way to secure vestibules at district schools, which currently rely on camera surveillance and magnetic card entry.

At Saturday’s district meeting, 55% of the 126 attendees from of Northfield, 70 from Sanbornton and 74 from Tilton voted in favor of Article 1, and 56% voted to pass Article 2 concerning career and technical education. In deciding the fate of Union Sanborn School, 120 said yes to the sale, prevailing over the 90 who voted to hold onto the building. The school budget passed by a majority voice vote, but 60% of voters were needed to approve the $8.7 million capital improvements bond and the $9.25 bond to add vocational education programs.

“The ripple effect doesn’t just stop at the driveway to Winnisquam Regional School District schools. It goes into the community,” Stock said. “What signal does this send to the businesses that were watching this vote?” Stock said precision manufacturing is a top ten employer in the Lakes Region and statewide, and a lucrative career for high school graduates who cannot find this training at Laconia’s Huot Technical Education Center.

“I think the loss of the CTE bond is tragic,” said Gardner. “It was about educational opportunities for students going forward.”

Although a voter turnout of roughly 260 in the three-town district of nearly 12,000 is a small percentage, it’s larger than in the past two years, said District Superintendent Robert Seaward. The good news is the budget was passed and the approved teacher contract will raise WRSD’s pay scale from near-bottom to mid-range, which will help attract and retain qualified  teachers, he said.

The sale of the Union Sanborn School property may ultimately fund some of the targeted capital improvements, Seaward said. “Depending on how much Union Sanborn sells for, that could solve some of our problems. We could turn that money into roofs or repairs.”

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