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School district navigates costs, cuts

January 23, 2019
LITELTON—"Our cost per pupil is higher than the state average," acknowledged SAU 84 Superintendent Dr. Steve Nilhas at last week's Budget-SAU 84 meeting.

He observed that the gap had fallen by about $567 since the 2016/17 school year, when per pupil costs were $4,900 higher than the state average.

"We will drop again next year," he predicted, citing slight declines in enrollment and a $300,000 reduction in the overall budget.

Nilhas suggested that the average cost across New Hampshire were expected to rise, which would also reduce the gap between Littleton and averages.

Some sources of budget crunch pressure are as clear as they are unavoidable, being state-mandated.

"The cost of special education placements are a real challenge for us. And yet we recognize the need to educate all children...but it is very costly," said Nilhas, referring to those students whose needs are such that they must be tuitioned elsewhere.

He added that the biggest increases in demand for services weren't necessarily from new arrivals, and observed that an existing student's medical and educational needs can change quite dramatically.

The total costs of special education out-of-district placement ballooned from $90,676 in 2015-16, to $240,000 in 2018/19, and is projected to reach $400,000 in 2019/20. The number of placements has doubled, from two to four. State law mandates that districts fund those placements, a policy which met with skepticism from one member of the Budget Committee, and which Nilhas indicated might be a good topic to take up with elected officials.

Also on the state side, the district has lost, and expects to lose, about $59,677 per year in stabilization aid over the next two decades, as a result of a phaseout by the state legislature. This will place more burden on local districts to fund themselves. The poorest districts are feeling the tightest pinch from this reduction.

On the positive side, the district brings in about 100 students to its career and technical program, generating more than $500,000 in revenue. The CTC program offers some 21 different courses. Nonetheless, district revenues made up only four percent of total income, the majority of which came from local taxation (59 percent) followed by state sources (24 percent). Federal dollars, grants, and state education aid make up the remainder.

Nilhas also expressed optimism that despite recent modest declines in enrollment, Littleton would continue to get younger and attract new families, which could reserve that trend.

This past year, total enrollment was 698, down from 721 in 2017, and 710 in 2016.. Enrollment was about 850 in 2006. Total special education enrollment was up slightly, to 131 from 125 in 2017.

At Lakeway Elementary, class sizes are 12.5 in grades K and 1, 19 in grade 2, 15 in grades 3 and 4, and about 17 in grades 5 and 6. At all levels except for grade 2, class sizes are below state averages, in the case of kindergarten and first grade, dramatically lower.

New this year is the Above the Notch Community school, an adult education and degree recovery program, taught after hours, that has already helped residents over the age of 16 work towards their high school degrees. It is free to Littleton students under the age of 21, and charges $125 per class for those above that age. Lisbon and Profile students have already been contracted in.

This year, the district will spend $25,000 on Chromebooks for seventh graders and Lakeway Elementary students. Lakeway aims to have one Chromebook per student.

In all Littleton's SAU 84 plans a default budget of $16,335,130. During the current year, teachers will receive no new money to their contract.

Garnet Hill
Martin Lord Osman
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