September 12, 2018WOLFEBORO — The Governor Wentworth Regional School Board's Chairman and Finance Committee leader, Jack Widmer, received a positive response to his invitation on behalf of the committee to the Boards of Selectmen of all six towns in the cooperative district to attend a special Finance Committee meeting.
On Thursday evening, Sept. 6, representatives from every town took advantage of the opportunity to address concerns about the cost of education in the Skylight Dining Room of the Lakes Region Technology Center.
By the conclusion of the meeting, most attendees seemed interested in continuing involvement in the budget process as it develops in the coming months. The Finance Committee members, elected officials to the school board, invited each town to send representatives to attend its meetings.
Ossipee Selectman Rick Morgan spoke adamantly of the need to reduce taxes, after his town faced a sharp increase that raised the tax rate despite the town's best efforts to keep its own costs down. He said that if "the little town of Ossipee can do it," the county, state and federal governments can do it, and declared the situation to be "untenable the way it is currently going."
There were no easy answers to the question of how to reduce the budget, but information was provided on the process. Superintendent Kathy Cuddy-Egbert shared the numbers showing declining increases over the last ten years, ranging from 7.44 percent in 2008 to last year's increase of 3.81 percent. But, as a member of Ossipee's budget committee indicated, that doesn't take away the sting of increased taxes.
Ossipee's rate was affected by an increase in the number of students, exacerbated by slight decreases elsewhere. The funding formula, in effect for over 50 years, is based 75 percent on average daily membership and 25 percent on equalized valuation, set by the state. Tuftonboro pays the highest amount per student at $22,000; Ossipee pays the lowest, at $11,799 per student, with the other towns' cost per student falling in between.
Morgan briefly floated the idea of Ossipee leaving the district, but as Widmer began to explain the repercussions – the town would have to buy out the other towns' share of its buildings, pay for transportation and special education costs, for instance —Morgan said he wasn't serious about that idea.
Widmer broke down the budget, which for starters bears the burden of the state's reduction of its contributions to the retirement system from 35 percent to zero. Approximately 76 percent of the budget is people related, i.e. wages, retirement, health care, FICA; 17 percent is operational costs, such as water, sewer, repairs and maintenance, special education, electricity and insurance. Just $7 million of the budget is left for the Finance Committee to consider.
New Durham Selectman David Swenson said the district needs to be run like a business, and said the board needs to control people costs. He asked how the district's expenses compare to the rest of the state, and was told its costs are below the state average. Morgan, upon hearing that the district pays 90 to 100 percent of its employees' health costs, depending on which plan teachers choose (there are two plans - teachers who opt for the higher cost plan pay 10 percent) said that Ossipee has decreased the town's share of insurance expenses and urged the school board to do the same.
Discussion of revenue from the addition of $1 million in tuition from Middleton students centered around the benefit to the district in stabilizing the student population as well; however, Cuddy-Egburt pointed out that those dollars are now part of the existing budget, so no future reduction will appear in the budget.
Selectman Lloyd Wood of Tuftonboro reminded the audience that the board renegotiated its debt with the bond bank, resulting in a reduction of $90,000 per year in expense. Wolfeboro Selectman Paul O'Brien noticed that the board had also managed to reduce its energy costs by 10 percent and asked how that was achieved.
Board Member at Large Ernie Brown, from Brookfield, explained the agreement with TRANE that resulted in energy conservation measures throughout the district's elementary schools paid for along the way by immediate reductions in energy usage.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Widmer again extended an invitation to the selectmen to take a seat at the table as the budget process moves forward.