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WMRSD board squeezes down proposed school budget


January 13, 2010
WHITEFIELD — More substantial cuts were made to the proposed 2010-2011 White Mountains Regional School District at Monday night's meeting by the school board, all recommended by SAU #36 Interim Superintendent Dr. Harry Fensom.

The board voted to present a total budget of $18,262,588, only $90,000 more than the default budget of $18,172,466.

This represents a 2 percent cut in the bottom line of what had earlier been the proposed operating budget.

The school board voted unanimously to present this lower figure at tonight's 7 p.m. public budget hearing at WMRHS.

This number represents a reduction of approximately a half-a-million-dollars from the total discussed over the course of two earlier "work" sessions at which board members pored budget sheets and listened to information presented by building principals and Central Office team members.

Under the now-proposed budget, the level of administrative support would remain as is, and Jefferson School principal Sherri Gregory's position would remain as half-time principal and half-time grant writer. North Country CLASS director Beth Morris would continue to split her time between administration and classroom teaching.

An additional teacher requested by principal Pat McLean at the Lancaster School is not included, for a savings of $57,000. Five not-yet-identified para-professional positions were also struck from the budget, saving some $100,000.

The WMRHS Student Assistance Program (SAP) counselor, the bulk of whose salary is covered this year by grants, is included in the proposed budget because of the critical nature of the services provided, designed to prevent drug, alcohol, and other at-risk behavior.

WMRHS guidance counselors would also work five extra days at a cost of $2,783.

Oil prices will likely be locked in at less than the $3.10 originally anticipated, and a reduced price is listed.

Only half the previously requested equipment across all schools and departments is now included in the proposed budget at a cost of $94,000.

At an earlier meeting, special education director Marie Fay said that running two pre-school programs, with fewer hours for non-special-education four-year-olds, would not only save money but would also result in a smoother, more efficient operation.

"Running three programs this year in three schools has been a nightmare," Ms. Fay said. "I would prefer two (locations for these half-day programs)."

This year 21 of 76 pre-school students have special needs, Ms. Fay said, adding, however, that these youngsters gain a great deal from going to class with regular education students. Twelve is the maximum permissible class size.

This change saves nearly $84,000.

Early remediation for youngsters with special needs works, Ms. Fay pointed out, allowing many to be dropped from the special education roster by the time they are in the third or fourth grade.

School board member Lynne Holland of Jefferson said that data is still needed to justify the cost of offering universal all-day kindergarten, rather than a half-day program. "We need to know with substantive information that the results justify the added cost," she said.

The North Country CLASS (NCC), which is grouped as a separate grades 1 to 4, and grades 5 to 8 setting for emotionally handicapped students, also keeps some younger students from having to be placed in residential schools far from their homes and the District. First-grade students rarely later return to live full time with their families and to go to school locally, Ms. Fay said.

At any particular time, about half the NCC students are in-District youngsters, with the remainder out-of-District placements for whom the sending districts pay tuition.

If the NCC were not in place, the District would be required to pay high transportation costs to get these students to out-of-District private schools.

At the request of board member Randy Boggess of Lancaster, Dr. Fensom pledged to be prepared to address whether programs are "mandated" or "non-mandated," and, if non-mandated, what the educational rationale is that justifies these offerings.

Dr. Fensom explained to Mr. Boggess, however, that the topic is not as "cut-and-dried as you might like." For example, high schools must offer two foreign languages, with three credits offered in one, and two in the other. Typically, however, the offered sequence is for a longer period of time, he pointed out, since this is by far more useful to students. Interscholastic sports are non-mandated, for instance, explained Dr. Fensom.

"Taxpayers need to know the advantages of what is being offered that is non-mandated," Mr. Boggess reiterated. "From a communication perspective, we need to take it to the next level."

Vice chairman Ray Gradual of Whitefield said that he believes that it wasn't the school board's job to "nickel-and-dime" the budget, but that given the harsh economic realities within the five-town District a level-funded budget is called for. Somewhere between 200 and 250 fewer students are enrolled in WMRSD schools than a decade ago, he pointed out. "I don't think we can have any increase in the budget," Mr. Gradual said. "I don't think we can have any increase in staff; that's my feeling."

The school board voted to give a 2 percent raise to all administrators and central office staff, mirroring the raises negotiated with District teachers who are no longer on the 12-step schedule. Unlike the teachers, however, administrators received no pay raises in the current 2009-2010 school year. Teachers, on the other hand, received a 2.4 percent raise this year in the second year of a two-year contract.

Mr. Boggess urged that the school board "aim for greater transparency and better communication" as it prepares for tonight's budget hearing, the Feb. 1 First Deliberative Session, and the March 9 WMR School District vote.

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