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Councilors voice objections at school budget hearing


February 10, 2010
BERLIN — The public hearing on the school board budget turned contentious on Wednesday night as city councilors looked for cuts.

"Is there a plan B?" asked Councilor Michael Rozak, referring to the final figure of $16.8 million.

The school board answered no.

"Maybe there should be," he said.

The budget is up more than $1 million from 2009 - 2010, or 6.5 percent, not including capital improvements.

"We worked hard to reach what the council requested," Superintendent Corinne Cascadden said. Contracted salary and benefit increases and the cost of students who have to be sent out of district made achieving a flat budget impossible, she said, plus the school has to keep its accreditation.

"Our goal is to maintain the minimum standards of approval," she said, which the proposed budget does, just barely.

The increase equates to roughly a tax increase of $2.20 per $1,000 of property valuation, Councilor Mark Evans said, not what the council was hoping for.

"It's too bad the city council and the school board couldn't be more open and honest with each other," said Coucilor Rozak. Too much political posturing clouds negotiations between the two entities, he said; the school department should be creating a "needs list," not a "wish list."

"It's really hard not to laugh right now," school board vice-chair Nicole Plourde said. "This is what we need. We actually probably need more than this."

The school department has had to eat its fixed costs for the last two years, she said, because the city council decided the priority was to hold down the tax rate. Now the department is up against a wall, she said, and they have no more places to cut. "Where do you want it to come from?"

Councilor Tom McCue asked if the department had considered going to any of the units that the school had contractual agreements with to try to renegotiate.

Board chair Mitch Couture said no, the board hadn't considered negotiating yet. Seats on the board, like the council, just changed, he said, and they haven't discussed that yet.

But board secretary Martha Laflamme made it clear she wasn't going to go asking for concessions.

"I'm not willing to go to the unions and ask them to come to the table," she said, because these negotiations were made in good faith and endorsed by the council. If the unions wish to come to the table on their own she would talk, she said, but she wasn't going to go asking them to take cuts.

The cost of salaries and fringe benefits increased almost $725,000 in next year's budget, or about 5.7 percent. Superintendent Cascadden said there are no new positions in the budget.

Councilor Robert Danderson said he'd like to see the school department take a hard look at the cost of educating students from Milan and Dummer to see whether it makes sense. Students from those communities will pay between $11,255 and $13,314, depending on their grade, to attend Berlin schools.

"The citizens of Berlin are subsidizing Milan and Dummer students," he said. "It makes no sense whatsoever. They are getting a discount on my property taxes."

Board chair Couture said he felt the same way as Councilor Danderson in the past, but now he realizes those students provided added revenue without substantially increasing expenses.

Councilor Danderson said he was also in favor of allowing the school department to keep any surplus they had at the end of the year, to encourage fiscal discipline.

"I'd love to believe you," said vice-chair Plourde, but the school board has had to give city its surpluses for each of the last two years, totally $2 million.

Councilor Danderson congratulated the special education department.

"You're doing something right," he said.

During his administration the special education budget was ever increasing, he said, so it is good to see those costs have leveled off.

Councilor Evans raised concerns that the board reduced the maintenance budget by more than $20,000, but he withdrew his criticism after he realized closing Brown school has eliminated some costs.

The new budget included enrollment figures, Superintendent Cascadden said, as well as a plan for the possible influx of students as a result of the federal prison.

"We've been watching enrollment very closely," she said. "Whatever we pick up in the fall we have room for, as long as we don't pick up an exorbitant level."

A table in the budget showed what would happen if each grade increased by 12 students. Some teachers would have to be moved around, she said, and some class sizes would approach 30 students, but the school would still meet state standards.

The school department didn't request any money for capital improvement because they weren't sure what approach the new council intends to take on capital improvements, Assistant Superintendent Marion Huntley said.

The budget increase is held to about $550,000, or 3.4 percent if the 100 percent cut in capital improvements is factored in.

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