Staff cuts, modular classroom dominate school budget hearing
February 10, 2010
BARNSTEAD — Concerns about proposed staff cuts and skepticism on the part of budget committee members about the need for a second modular classroom dominated the discussion during last week's public hearing on the Barnstead School District's 2010 operating budget and Warrant.
Resident Judy Chase stepped forward during the public comment portion of the Feb. 4 hearing to voice her concerns about rumors she said have been circulating throughout the community regarding the school board's decision to cut one of the school's two Health teachers and the part-time nurse's assistant from next year's budget.
Suggesting that it would be "a shame" to lose the Health teacher (who she said has generated excitement among the students in her class) and that history has proven the need for two pairs of hands in the nurse's office, Chase pointed to the raises included in the SAU office's budget and argued that administrators should not be receiving salary increases in the face of staff cuts.
Asked by budget committee Chairman Paul Landry to respond to Chase's comments, Principal Tim Rice explained that in an effort to demonstrate fiscal responsibility to both the committee and the public, he and the board had discussed eliminating the nurse's assistant, a Health teacher, and had made changes to the Alternative program that also led to the elimination of a teaching position.
Due to an anticipated reduction in Title I funding next year, he added, the administration had also proposed the elimination of four Title I aides, who will take the place of four other staff members due to seniority.
"It's not about the person," he said. "It's about the position."
Stating her belief that the proposed cuts (particularly the Health teacher) would inhibit the district's ability to "give kids something they won't get in the classroom," Chase also suggested that the decision to eliminate positions that have had such a positive impact on students' attitude toward learning was not a responsible one for a school designated by the state as "in need of improvement" on the basis of recent NECAP scores to make.
Urging the budget committee to consider reinstating the positions, school nurse Kathy Grillo stated her belief that the school needed someone in the nurse's office on a permanent basis "who knows the kids" and the medications that many of them need during the day.
Commenting that while she was out of the office recently due to the death of her husband (former selectman Phil Grillo), it cost the district roughly $700 a day to bring in an interim nurse when her assistant could have filled in for $60 a day, Grillo said her chief concern was the possibility of a "tragedy" occurring if a student needed emergency care, and she could not reach them in time.
"Don't shoot yourself in the foot on this one," she said, adding that she and her assistant also managed to provide 500 students with vision screenings last year, sometimes catching issues that required corrective lenses.
The nurse's office, she said, also sees a fair amount of walk-in traffic from residents who either cannot make or don't want to bother making the 24-mile trek to Concord Hospital for medical services.
"I think you're really going to regret not having this woman here," she added.
Responding to Chase's comments about SAU raises, Diane Beijer, the school board's representative to the budget committee, explained that those funds were intended to provide increases for all employees who are not currently covered under a collective bargaining agreement.
Chase said her position on the matter had not changed.
During the committee's review of the budget for Regular Programming, member Bill Haynes recommended that the Teachers' Salaries line be reduced by $59,658.37.
After reviewing information Rice had provided him regarding recent studies on the effectiveness of small and large class sizes, and examining the school's current enrollment figures, Haynes said he felt that $60,000 could be removed from teacher salaries, and class sizes increased slightly, without any detrimental effects.
"I think there's a minimum of $60,000 worth of fat in that salary line," he said.
Beijer disagreed, arguing that class sizes, particularly in Kindergarten through third grade (a child's formative years), need to be smaller.
"I think those kids deserve better," she said.
"I went by the studies I was provided," Haynes replied, adding that all of the reports Rice had given him were in favor of larger class sizes.
Beijer countered that for every study showing the benefits of larger class sizes, there is one supporting the opposite viewpoint.
Landry suggested that with the district already planning to make "significant staffing changes," it "might be best to let the dust settle" before recommending further cuts.
Explaining that he did not feel it was the committee's place to demand cuts, Haynes said he simply felt that it would be prudent for the committee to reduce the teachers' salaries line and let the administration figure out how to make up the difference if it believed that strongly in small class sizes.
"The number of students [currently enrolled] doesn't support this line," he added.
With Business Administrator Amy Ransom pointing out that the school board recently eliminated a sixth-grade teaching position on the basis of next year's projected enrollment figures, effectively reducing the teachers' salaries line by $50,000, Haynes withdrew his motion.
As the committee arrived later at its review of the SAU office budget, Haynes asked what percentage the school board had approved for raises.
Beijer replied that the board had budgeted for increases of 2.5 percent.
"If you want to look for a place to save money, this is it," Landry commented, explaining (as he said he has every year) that from his perspective, both Alton and Barnstead pay far more in administrative overhead than they could if they "got creative" and pursued the idea of joining together under one superintendent.
Beijer said that although she did not necessarily disagree with Landry's comments, the issue cannot be addressed unless the state Legislature changes the formula by which cooperative school districts determine the contributions of each of their communities.
The reason Alton and Barnstead (which were, at one time, part of the same district) separated, she said, was the fact that under the current formula (which is based on the overall assessed value of properties in each town), Alton ended up shouldering 70 percent of the financial burden, while Barnstead was responsible for only 30 percent.
The joint maintenance agreement (JMA) under which the two towns built Prospect Mountain High School, she added, has worked so well because under its provisions, each town's portion of the high school's operating budget is determined by its percentage of the student population, while capital expenditures are split 50/50.
With a motion from committee member Bruce Grey on the table to level-fund administrative salaries and raises, Beijer pointed out that the personnel set to receive raises had already signed contracts that included the new figures.
Asked to explain what positions were covered under the SAU Raises line, Ransom replied that the money would cover the principal, assistant principal, Technology director, occupational/physical therapist, and any other staff members who are not associated with a union.
Asked by Haynes what the board's philosophy had been in bringing forward an increase of 2.5 percent, Beijer explained that the proposed increase represented a compromise on the original figure of three percent.
"How is that a compromise?" Haynes replied.
Noting that teachers and members of the Barnstead Educational Support Team (B.E.S.T.) were set to receive three percent salary increase, Landry questioned why Haynes seemed, to him, to want to "penalize" administrative staff by not giving them a raise.
Haynes said he did not intend to penalize anyone.
"They had a choice," he said, explaining that from his perspective, the administrative staff could have chosen to remain teachers, and entered into their respective fields knowing that pay raises would not be guaranteed every year.
With Beijer pointing out that administrators will be hit with an increase in their health insurance costs next year, Grey suggested that in the future, district officials "should give everyone hard numbers [on health insurance], instead of just percentages," so that all employees will know exactly what they are expected to pay for health insurance.
Stating that he would not want to see anyone lose money, Haynes suggested that district officials calculate the impact of the insurance increase and adjust raises accordingly.
That same procedure, he said, should be followed in the future, as well.
"In times like this, we need to start looking at things differently than just a carte blanche raise," he said.
Selectmen's representative Dave Kerr said his board's philosophy toward raises this year was to take the approach that "We're not the only people in town."
While it may be a "nice idea" to offer employees a pay increase, he said, local officials also need to be mindful of the fact that social security payments and pensions aren't going up, leaving many residents on fixed incomes in the position of having to scramble to keep from losing their homes in the face of rising property taxes.
"All the wrongs in the world can't be taken care of," he added, suggesting that this is a time to hold the line.
Beijer disagreed, arguing that, "you need to reward employees for hard work, and that starts at the top."
On a motion from Haynes, the committee ultimately voted to zero out the $15,110 SAU Raises line, reducing the bottom line for the SAU office to $312,823.66.
Questioning the need
A proposal by the school board to install a second modular classroom outside the main building next year at a cost of $22,284 generated an hour-long discussion that began with committee member Brian White's motion to zero out the Building Rental line in the school's Maintenance budget.
Explaining his rationale, White commented that everything he had seen recently indicated that the population of both the school and the town as a whole is in decline, and that the second modular was therefore not necessary.
Responding to White's comments, Beijer explained that every available foot of space within the building is currently being utilized, and that the need for space has reached the point where the school's Music room cannot be used during the early part of October because of NECAP testing.
The board's plan, she said, is to shift the Art and Music programs out to the modulars, and bring the fourth grade class currently housed in the existing modular back into the building.
As part of the rental agreement for the new modular, she added, the owner would completely gut the existing modular and re-build it, at his own expense, in order to bring it into compliance with current building codes.
White maintained his opposition to the new modular, arguing that the school, which was designed to accommodate up to 600 students, should be able to handle a capacity of 520.
Beijer replied that at the time the school was originally built, Barnstead and surrounding towns had not yet experienced the "explosion" in the number of students requiring special education services that has occurred in recent years.
With the committee's initial vote on the proposal deadlocked at 4-4, Landry called for further discussion in the hope of breaking the tie.
The ensuing discussion centered on the skepticism of some committee members about the need for a new modular, with member Cathy Kowalski suggesting that the board should have obtained quotes from other modular manufacturers and stating that the proposal appeared, to her, to be a simple "swap of space," and not an example of the desperate need for classroom space at the elementary school (as Beijer claimed).
With Haynes asking repeatedly how many of the rooms depicted on the diagram supplied by Rice (which Haynes did not feel was an accurate representation of the building) were actual classrooms, and were originally designed for that purpose, Rice walked the committee through the diagram, from one end of the building to the other, pointing out which areas are currently being used as classroom space.
Following Rice's presentation, Haynes suggested that school officials might be able to free up more space by not insisting on smaller class sizes.
"The question is, can the board afford, and can the town afford, the smaller classes?" he asked, suggesting that, "if you give people less, they'll find a way to make it work."
Kowalski later asked whether it would be feasible to hold off a year on the new modular, giving the board and the committee time to gather more information and additional quotes.
The committee ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of the new modular, with Haynes abstaining in order to break the tied vote on White's motion.
Discussing the Warrant
Article IX on the district's 2010 Warrant, which asks voters to approve the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement between the school board and B.E.S.T., and to raise and appropriate $25,714 to cover increases in salaries and benefits during the first year of the agreement (2010-11), drew criticism from committee members who considered it out of touch with the current economic climate.
"This is no time to be asking for a raise," Grey said, arguing that the justification for the increases "isn't there," and that the committee should not recommend passage of the article to voters.
Landry said he would "reluctantly" be voting against the article because he felt B.E.S.T. members should have made more concessions in light of the economy, rather than demanding an additional two steps, and an additional paid holiday.
"I appreciate the union's decision not to ask for a COLA (cost of living allowance), but what did they give up?" he commented.
The committee voted 6-2 not to recommend passage of Article IX, with Beijer and member Danielle Krause dissenting.
Grey also reacted strongly against Article XI (which asks voters to approve the terms of a new two-year collective bargaining agreement with the Prospect Mountain Teachers' Association, and to raise and appropriate Barnstead's $35,405 share of the increase in salaries and benefits during the first year), shaking his head as he voiced his disbelief at the school board's decision to recommend the article.
"Ten percent over two years … that's ungodly!" he said. "They're not part of reality."
Beijer would only say on record that negotiations at the high school were "extremely difficult."
Landry also objected to the raises included in the Prospect Mountain contract, and said he did not consider half a percent toward health insurance costs a "compelling" enough concession to justify the increases.
Other Warrant articles the committee voted to recommend during last week's hearing include:
-Article II, which asks voters to set the salaries of district officers.
-Article III, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $174,711 in support of the school lunch program, with the full amount to be off-set by the program's revenues.
-Article V, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $25,000 to be added to an existing capital reserve fund to off-set any unexpected increases in special education.
-Article VI, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $15,000 to be added to the Underground Tank Replacement capital reserve fund established last year.
-Article VII, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $28,000 for asbestos removal.
-Article VIII, which asks voters to set aside $50,000 from the district's FY11 end-of-year fund balance to be added to the Building Maintenance Fund created last year.
-Article XIII, which asks voters to establish a new capital reserve fund at the high school that will eventually be used to fund the Prospect Mountain board's contractual obligation to pay for teachers' professional development courses, and to raise and appropriate $10,000 to be placed in the new fund.
-Article XIV, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $33,822.11 (Barnstead's share of one percent of the high school's general fund) to be placed in a contingency fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated utility expenses at the high school during the 2010-11 school year.
-Article XV, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $20,000 to be added to the high school's General Maintenance Fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated maintenance expenses during the 2010-11 school year.
-Article XVI, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $6,250, Barnstead's share of the cost to install two new security cameras on the exterior of the high school and a new anti-theft alarm system in the high school library.
-Article XVII, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $1,750, Barnstead's share of the cost of a wind turbine feasibility study at the high school.
-An as-yet-unnumbered petitioned article asking voters to raise and appropriate $5,400 in support of a new after-school program.
The bottom line
Excluding any appropriations from other Warrant articles, the FY11 operating budget approved by the committee last week was set at $10,606,195 — a figure that includes Barnstead's share of the high school's operating budget.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org