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Budget committee proposal falls below Newfound tax cap

Chair Ruby Hill and members of the Newfound Area School District Budget Committee conduct a public hearing in the auditorium of Newfound Regional High School. (Photo by Thomas Caldwell) (click for larger version)
January 17, 2019
BRISTOL — The Newfound Area School District Budget Committee heard calls for more spending, or reallocating the money it was proposing in the budget, aired during a Jan. 11 hearing, but decided to stick with its number and leave it to the voters to amend the amount if they wished during the upcoming deliberative session.

The budget committee's $22,004,842 budget proposal for 2019-20, combined with the cost items in the proposed teachers' contract, represents a 0.76 percent increase over the current-year budget. The Newfound Area School Board had proposed spending $22,174,792, which, with the teachers' contract, would be a 1 percent increase, falling slightly below the amount allowed under the district's tax cap.

While the cap limits the increased tax impact to no more than 2 percent, because of decreased revenues, the school board's 1 percent increase would lead to about a 2 percent increase in the tax assessment to the seven member towns.

Some residents questioned why the budget committee would propose spending that is below the cap, when the cost of doing business increases at a more rapid pace.

Rather than reviewing the entire budget, Committee Chair Ruby Hill highlighted the changes from the current year and discussed how the budget committee's proposal differed from what the school board had sought.

A $72,454 elementary teaching position that had been budgeted for this year but went unfilled is not in the budget for next year. Also cut was $5,000 for an athletic director at Newfound Memorial Middle School, with the savings coming from a restructuring of positions after the current athletic director retires. A part-time foreign language teacher at the middle school also was eliminated, resulting in savings of $6,500. Another $6,500 comes from a part-time physical education position at the elementary school level.

The school board also eliminated a late bus for a savings of $31,888; and a shade replacement at the middle school, saving $6,500.

Changes in special education needs resulted in $41,000 in savings for an out-of-district placement, and eliminating an out-of-school special education coordinator saved another $20,000. There was also $15,000 in savings that had gone to charter school tuition.

The proposed budget also shows a reduction in a position teaching English as a second language ($8,500), general supplies ($21,000), and athletic transportation ($10,000).

The biggest addition to last year's budget is the reconstruction of Newfound Road, estimated to cost $249,906. There is also a $21,391 teacher retirement stipend; $168,699 for four new para-educators; $120,558 for a health insurance increase; $113,480 in teacher retirement; $80,000 for a new student information system; and $16,000 for plowing services at Danbury Elementary School and New Hampton Community School.

Other increases are $52,410 for heating oil; $15,000 for other fuel; $20,000 to move the middle school nurse's office and add a handicapped-accessible restroom; $12,741 for laptops for the high school art class; $9,952 for a 2 percent salary increase for the custodial staff; a $1,873 tax increase; $24,400 for Chromebook carts; $9,581 for a new junior varsity girls' soccer program at the high school; $26,000 for English textbooks; $10,500 for third-year PSAT testing; and $26,250 to replace aging faculty laptops.

Hill noted that the school board had proposed replacing all faculty laptops in the coming year, while the budget committee split the purchase over two years. The school board proposed Chromebook purchases for five schools, while the budget committee split that purchase over two years. The school board recommended a $31,000 cut in general supplies, while the budget committee recommended a $21,000 cut. The school board recommended a $4,000 cut in athletic transportation at New Hampton Community School but, because the school has no facility of its own and sends students to the New Hampton (prep) School, the budget committee left the $4,000 in the budget. The school board had made no provision for a raise for the custodial staff, but because they were the only support staff personnel whose pay was not on a par with surrounding school districts, the budget committee included funding for a 2 percent raise.

Comments and questions

Parents questioned the spending priorities that reduced the teaching staff and diverted money from routine maintenance to large projects such as the road paving.

Jonathan Schwab of New Hampton, who is the parent of a Community School student, said positions are not filled at the school and the cost of maintenance is much higher than 2 percent, so he didn't understand why the budget committee would propose spending even less.

Dorcas Gordon, whose son attends Bristol Elementary School, said there are serious safety issues with crumbling stone steps and falling ceiling tiles. Her son has asthma and the poor air quality bothers him, she said.

Archie Auger of Bristol had a number of questions about the budget handout that the presentation did not address.

"There's quite a swing in the amount of money in a number of places in the budget, and there's no way for members of the public to keep track of it," he said.

There also was discussion on two petitioned warrant articles, one to advise the school board to place capital improvement items in separate warrant articles for voters to decide, and the other to place responsibility for calculating the default budget with the budget committee. Both articles arose from a contentious year in which the school board took the position that the replacement of the high school roof that voters approved two years ago meant that large capital improvements, rather than being one-time expenditures, were part of the ongoing capital improvement program and therefore belong in the default budget.

Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater, who sits on the school board, spearheaded the petitioned article to ask the board to consider establishing a policy that any capital expenditure in excess of $24,999 — the definition of what qualifies for the capital improvement program — would become a separate warrant article. The language of the article is broad to give the school board discretion in implementing it, and passage would be advisory only, but Migliore maintained that it would help to heal the anger that has resulted from the school board's position.

School Board Chair Jeff Levesque addressed the idea of giving residents the chance to vote separately on capital expenditures, saying, "This article is not sponsored or recommended by the school board. The subject was brought to the policy committee and the school district attorney, and neither found any merit in it."

Bristol Selectman Don Milbrand, whose wife, Heidi, serves on the school board, sponsored the other petitioned article that would transfer the development of the default budget to the budget committee, as allowed by state law.

"People felt confused over how the default budget was prepared and what should be in it," Milbrand said. "A group felt that it might be better to have a less-biased group do it."

Auger agreed. "We've been an SB2 district for quite a while," he said, "and there have been a number of years when there was considerable controversy over the default budget. Perhaps it's time to ask a different group to prepare it. We can always vote to go back to having the school board do it."

He added, "They [the budget committee] would have to work closely with the SAU office to develop the default budget."

A new state law requires the school board to explain how it determines the default budget, but no one addressed that requirement at the budget hearing. A breakdown was included in the 32-page handout.

Garnet Hill
Martin Lord Osman
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