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Barnstead voters approve support staff contract



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SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS Eunice Landry (far left) and Kathy Preston (second from right) and district clerk Anna Williams (far right) are sworn in during Barnstead’s Annual School District Meeting on March 20. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
March 23, 2010
BARNSTEAD — Despite opposition from some residents who objected to pay increases in the face of the recession, voters at the Barnstead School District's annual meeting on March 20 approved the terms of a two-year contract between the district and members of the Barnstead Educational Support Team (B.E.S.T.).

Article IX on this year's district Warrant asked voters to approve the cost items included in the proposed contract, and to raise and appropriate $25,714 to cover salary increases during the first year (2010-11).

Providing the audience with an overview of the contract, school board member Eunice Landry explained that it would apply to the school's support staff (administrative personnel, paraprofessionals, custodians, and food service personnel).

A total of 40 employees, she said, would be covered under the contract – four administrative staff members, 28 paraprofessionals (four of whom are assigned to students at Prospect Mountain High School), three food service employees, four custodians and the school's behavior specialist.

Union members, Landry said, were separated into three categories – #1 (full-time employees, who work 260 days a year), #2 ('school year' employees who work 187 days out of the year), and #3 (part-time employees who work shorter hours and less days per year than union members in the previous two categories).

Describing the contract as a "status quo" agreement with no cost of living increases and no insurance changes, Landry explained that the district had agreed to increase the "pool" set aside for professional development reimbursement by $750.

Changes were also made, she said, to the performance evaluation plan outlined in the contract and the provisions covering unpaid leaves, while employees in Categories 2 and 3 were given an additional paid holiday (the day after Thanksgiving).

Over the course of the contract, she explained, two additional steps (16 and 17) would be added to B.E.S.T.'s existing 15-step salary schedule in order to ensure that the 14 union members who are currently at the highest step will be able to move forward and be rewarded for their years of experience.

The total increase in salaries during the first year of the contract, she said, would amount to $25,714, or 2.79 percent – an impact of four cents per $1,000 on the local tax rate.

During the second year, she added, salaries would see an increase of $26,814, or 2.83 percent.

Noting that town employees will not be receiving pay increases this year, resident and budget committee member Brian White said he was opposed to granting increases for school employees.

Resident Jim Weidner, who said he had been forced to take a pay cut over the past year, commented that cost of living increases "have disappeared almost everywhere."

"I don't see why we keep doing this," he said, questioning why longevity stipends and pay increases were being offered to school employees in the midst of a recession.

"I can't support this," he added.

Priscilla Tiede, a paraprofessional who will have served at the elementary school for 20 years this May, said she considered her fellow paraprofessionals to be invaluable as "extra eyes and ears" in the classroom.

While she was "not going to quit" if the contract failed, Tiede said she wanted voters to be aware that they would, in fact, be saving money due to the additional steps on the salary schedule.

As someone whose own family has fallen on hard times over the past year, she said, "I know what it's like to have to change your lifestyle."

Pointing out that she and many other employees had taken a pay cut in order to form the B.E.S.T., but felt that it was necessary in order to bring employees at the lower end of the pay scale up to where they should have been, Tiede said her hope was that the increases included in the new contract would help to off-set a 14.7 percent increase in union members' health insurance contributions.

"I love working here, and I love your children … I guess that's it," she said, returning to her seat amid a round of applause.

Asked whether the school board was simply giving "unilateral raises" to union members with no consideration given to whether or not those raises were actually warranted, or whether there were any mechanisms in place (as in the private sector) to determine raises based on merit, Landry replied that all staff members who meet or exceed the requirements of their positions would receive increases.

While the standards for paraprofessionals are set by the state Department of Education, she said, the requirements for all other positions are determined by the school board and district administrators.

Kristine Jannini, a paraprofessional at the elementary school for the past eight years, assured the audience that the economy was "first and foremost" on the minds of union members when they sat down to negotiate.

Stating that she was disappointed in recent newspaper articles about the contract, which she felt had focused too much on its financial aspects and ignored other provisions, like the revised evaluation process (which she described as "the number one thing that would help the district"), Jannini stressed that with an increase in their insurance contributions on the horizon, B.E.S.T. members would essentially be taking a sizable pay cut if the contract failed.

While he agreed that most union members deserved raises, Selectman Dave Kerr said he could not support the proposed contract after asking town employees to forego raises this year.

The board of selectmen, he said, felt that the town simply did not have the financial means to support pay increases this year – particularly elderly residents trying to live on social security, who are not likely to see a cost of living increase in their monthly payments for the next two years.

Commenting that "every other town employee" had been asked to forego a raise this year (and would actually end up taking a pay cut due to increases in health insurance), Deputy Town Clerk Mary Clarke suggested that all school district employees should have been asked to make the same sacrifice.

"I know they deserve it, but give us a break," she said to a burst of applause from the audience.

Resident Michelle Rosado said her child has been enrolled in the elementary school's special education program for the past 14 years, and owes much of his success to the paraprofessional aides who have helped him along the way.

"These people are vital," she said, urging audience members to contact their local state and federal legislators if they were unhappy with existing certification requirements.

Reiterating that he had been hit with a pay cut over the past year, Weidner said his wife had also been forced to pay more for her health insurance benefits.

"I just can't see it," he said.

Article IX passed with 86 in favor and 56 opposed, rendering Article X (which asked voters to authorize district officials to arrange a special meeting on a revised contract if the previous article failed) null and void.

Operating budget sparks debate

Resident Judy Chase was already in position at the microphone as Moderator Chris Hipkiss declared Article XVIII (which asked voters to approve an operating budget of $10,606,195.55 for the 2011 fiscal year) open for discussion with an amendment calling for the bottom line to be increased by $61,987.

Chase said she had based her amendment on the estimated cost of reinstating the salaries of health teacher Heather DeLuca and part-time nurse's assistant Barbara Robertson, whose positions were cut from the FY11 budget earlier this year in a controversial move by the school board to streamline operations and demonstrate fiscal responsibility to townspeople and the budget committee.

Stating her belief that the school was "blessed" to have the services of both Robertson (who she described as "invaluable") and DeLuca (who she said it would be "a shame" to lose), Chase said her intention was to partially off-set the proposed increase with the $22,284 budgeted for a second modular classroom, which she did not consider necessary.

Chase also urged her fellow residents to take a hard look at the administrative raises included in the FY11 budget and ask themselves whether district officials were being rewarded at the expense of lower-level staff.

"Please ask these questions, folks," she said.

Resident Elaine Swinford echoed Chase's assertion that Robertson was "an invaluable person" to have on hand as "back-up" for school nurse Kathy Grillo.

Commenting that her second grader had received an "excellent education" from DeLuca, resident Susan Gray agreed that district officials should be looking closer at salaries, but questioned the wisdom of cutting positions, such as DeLuca's or Robertson's, that she said are helping children from struggling families.

"These kids need to have a place to go," she said.

Providing the audience with some statistics that she said demonstrated the need for a part-time assistant in her office, Grillo said she had recorded a total of 10,110 visits to her office so far this school year (a figure that did not include off-the-street assessments).

She and Robertson, she said, had also managed to complete a total of 1,000 vision, weight, and hearing screenings that resulted in a number of referrals being issued to students who had vision or hearing problems that might otherwise not have been caught.

With 14 children in the building who have severe allergies and require special medication, she said, having an extra pair of hands in the office to administer those medications has been "invaluable," and has given her time to work on students' individual health care plans.

Having an additional nurse on hand, Grillo said, could also potentially save the town money by reducing liability if paramedics are not able to reach the school in time during an emergency.

"We need to look at the front-line people that are caring for our kids," she said.

Commenting that the elementary school's current population is "considerably less than it was a few years ago," when he served on the school board, Kerr said it seemed "strange" to him to hear Grillo say that she was operating a "community clinic" for walk-ins out of her office, and wondered aloud whether it was the school's place to be providing medical services to local residents.

Noting that there is a certified EMT working just across the hall from Grillo's office, in the school's main office, Kerr also questioned whether it was necessary to keep Robertson on staff.

"I question why we need to keep growing the number of positions when the population has been declining," he said.

Carol Troy, the EMT to whom Kerr referred, explained that she would run the risk of losing her certification by administering medication to students, and called Robertson's position "vital" to the school.

"We need to have her in the building," she said.

Objecting to Kerr's use of the term "community clinic," Grillo said that although she is not running a full-service clinic for community members, she would be "hard-pressed" to turn away a parent who came in looking for her opinion on whether or not they should take their child on a 20-mile trek to Concord Hospital to have a cut looked at.

Pointing out to the audience that under state statute, voters have no authority to demand that the school board reinstate positions cut from the budget, resident David Gregoire asked the board to explain its position on the matter.

Board Vice Chair Keith Couch explained that hundreds of hours had been spent on the development of the FY11 budget.

Principal Tim Rice and his administrative team, Couch said, were challenged by the board to take a hard look at the school's current staff and determine whether any cuts could be made, and based on the data Rice provided, the board felt that its responsibilities to local students could be carried out even with the recommended cuts.

Couch assured the audience, however, that the board takes its obligation to provide all necessary services very seriously, and would re-evaluate any staff cuts that resulted in shortcomings.

Stating that she was hesitant to add money to the operating budget that would not be used for its intended purpose, Gray asked Couch for a clear answer as to whether or not the board would re-instate DeLuca and Robertson in the fall if Chase's amendment passed.

Couch replied that he could not support the idea of retaining those two positions based on what the board had been told by Rice and other administrators.

The board, he added, has an obligation not to maintain any position that is not being fully utilized.

With Chase's amendment still on the floor, White proposed another amendment calling for the bottom line figure to be reduced by $158,780.

After comparing the school's current enrollment figures to the number of teachers on staff, White said he had come up with a student-to-teacher ratio of nearly five-to-one.

His amendment, he said, was based on the estimated savings involved in removing one first-grade teacher, one third-grade teacher, and the second modular, which would not be necessary if class sizes were brought in line with state recommendations.

"I know we're aiming for better, but the economy isn't such," he said.

Voicing her support for White's amendment, Swinford (who serves as a state representative for Belknap County District Five) said she had spoken with a representative from the Department of Education last week who informed her that the state recommends an average class size of 25 for Kindergarten through second grade and 30 for third through fifth grade.

Explaining that the board viewed a second modular as the most reasonable solution to the school's space issues given the current state of the economy, Couch said it would be "challenging" for administrators to increase class sizes given the enrollment figures in the lower grades.

Recent studies, he said, have also shown that students in Kindergarten through third grade tend to fare better in smaller classes.

"I feel bad about the position the taxpayers have been put in," White replied, asking Couch whether the board felt any responsibility toward local taxpayers, or simply toward students.

Couch pointed to the board's efforts to keep the growth in next year's budget down to 0.08 percent as proof of its commitment to taxpayers.

With both Chase's and White's amendments failing, the original bottom line figure of $10,606,195.55 (which includes Barnstead's $3,334,781.20 share of the operating budget for the high school) passed in a secret ballot vote, with 87 in favor and 41 opposed.

The following articles also passed:

-Article II, which asked voters to set the district moderator's salary at $150 per meeting; the clerk's at $150 per meeting; the school board chair's at $2,700; those of the remaining board members at $2,500 each; the treasurer's at $600; the truant officer's at $125; and those of the supervisors of the checklist at $100 each per meeting.

-Article III, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $174,711 in support of the elementary school lunch program, with the full amount expected to be off-set by revenue from food sales and state and federal grants.

-Article IV, which asked voters to discontinue the Middle High School Land Design Capital Reserve Fund, which no longer had a balance.

-Article V, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $25,000 to be placed in a previously established reserve fund for the purpose of covering any unexpected special education expenses.

-Article VI, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $15,000 to be added to the Underground Tank Replacement Fund established last year.

-Article VII, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $28,000 in support of asbestos removal at the elementary school.

-Article VIII, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $50,000 to be added to the Building Maintenance Fund established last year.

-Article XIII, which asked voters to establish a new capital reserve fund at the high school for the purpose of reimbursing teachers for the cost of professional development courses, and to set aside $10,000 from the FY10 fund balance to be placed in the new fund.

-Article XIV, which asked voters to establish a contingency fund at the high school for the purpose of covering any unanticipated utility expenses during the 2010-11 school year, and to raise and appropriate $33,822.11 (Barnstead's share of one percent of the high school's general fund) to be placed in the contingency fund.

-Article XV, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $20,000 to be added to the high school General Maintenance Fund.

-Article XVI, which asked voters to raise and appropriate $6,250, Barnstead's share of the cost of installing two new security cameras on the exterior of the high school and a new anti-theft security system at the high school library.

-Article XVII, which asked voters to set aside $1,750 from the FY10 end-of-year fund balance to cover Barnstead's portion of the cost of a wind turbine feasibility study at the high school.

-Article XIX, a petitioned article that asked voters to raise and appropriate $5,400 in support of a new after-school enrichment program at the elementary school.

Article XXI, a petitioned article submitted by the Alton Budget Committee that asked voters to restore the original wording of the Prospect Mountain Joint Maintenance Agreement by granting the high school's joint budget committee (which currently serves in an advisory-only capacity) the same authority and oversight as a municipal budget committee, failed.

Article XI, which asked voters to approve the cost items included in a proposed two-year contract with the Prospect Mountain Teachers' Association, failed by default after being rejected at the polls in Alton, but voters in Barnstead did approve Article XII, authorizing the high school board to re-negotiate with the teachers' union and hold a special meeting in each town on a revised contract.

Although Article XX (a petitioned article asking voters to establish an exploratory committee at the high school to study the feasibility of partnering with Alton on a joint middle school) failed in Alton, Barnstead voters agreed, at the urging of several residents, to pass it as a message to high school board members from Alton to improve communication with their counterparts.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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