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Plymouth School Board grapples with new financial reality

February 08, 2011
PLYMOUTH — The Plymouth School Board budget hearing held this past Monday night in the elementary school cafeteria began with the all-too-accurate observation by Chairman Mike Bullek that the economic times area residents are now living through are really tough.

"This has been our most difficult budget in all the years I have been on the board," said Bullek.

The unusually well-attended school budget hearing was packed with taxpayers and parents concerned about the impact of losing state funds for education under the new adequacy formula coming out of the Claremont decision.

There is the possibility that state lawmakers will pass legislation to delay the implementation of the new formula by extending the existing "collar" to stabilize the school funding situation for at least the next two years. But that is not likely to happen until sometime later in the spring session, if at all.

In the meantime, Plymouth must plan to implement the requisite changes either this year or in the near future.

"This will have a tremendous impact on students, as well as on all the folks who pay the bill," said Superintendent Mark Halloran. "We will have to come up with a sustainable plan for the future in order to deal with the new way of doing business."

Once again, for the benefit of people who have not been attending meetings regularly, Halloran explained that Plymouth Elementary is slated to lose $776,000 in state aid for education. This alone accounts for an increase of $1.75 per thousand on the tax rate, while at the same time Plymouth is dealing with challenges posed by a host of other factors.

Among other things, Plymouth this year will begin to make payments on the bond for elementary school renovations that were passed by last year's Annual Meeting, and while the cost of the bond, at 83 cents per thousand, is less than was originally estimated when the proposal was presented last year, the tax increase over the course of the five-year bond is not insignificant.

Halloran said that the board felt the renovations were the right decision last year because it was the last possible occasion that the school could access state building aid for 60 percent of the project cost, but the tax increase was nevertheless going to be painful.

Plymouth is also dealing with a significant decrease in property assessments in town and facing a budget year in which residents will also be asked to approve warrant articles for building new police and fire department facilities.

The school board is proposing a number of cuts to the budget, including six staff positions (two through retirement) and reductions to co-curricular sports programs, ranging from cheerleading to B teams for field hockey, soccer, and seventh and eighth grade boys' basketball, spring baseball and softball.

Which exact teaching or staff positions will ultimately be cut has not yet been determined. Those decisions will be made by the school board after Town Meeting, when enrollments and class sizes begin to be firmed up and as the district must send contracts out for the following year.

Article 5 on the Plymouth School District Warrant asks the voters to authorize the school board to restore some or all of the teachers who will be laid off in the interim in the event that an extension of the "collar" is passed in Concord and funds do end up coming to Plymouth.

Article 6 on the warrant asks voters for $8,029,620 for the base operating budget for the next fiscal year, $1,000 in contingency funds and $18,410 for a one-year agreement between the district and Plymouth Support Staff Association.

The staff agreement calls for no increase to the existing salary schedule and no step movement for any of these support employees, a concession on the part of Plymouth Elementary School staff members that was roundly applauded at the budget hearing.

Discussion at the hearing was spirited but cordial, with many parents in attendance seeming to grimly accept the necessity of the cuts, but also urging the board to restore all teaching positions to the budget if the collar should pass this year.

Some attendees said that they would much prefer to see cuts in co-curricular activities and programs rather than teachers, putting primary importance on retaining as many skilled veteran and enthusiastic young teachers for as long as possible.

School board member Kate Hedberg pointed out that the board has already made a myriad of cuts in all different parts of the budget, but that the only way to make up for the loss of such a significant sum of money was to look at significant areas like salaries, which means teachers.

Halloran agreed, saying the over the course of the past few years, significant cuts had already pared the budget down in many areas, making it very lean indeed.

"We just have nowhere else to go," Halloran.

Plymouth Elementary School Principal Julie Flynn said plans are already underway to determine the best possible way to make the substantial cuts that are necessary while impacting the quality of education of Plymouth elementary school children as little as possible. She said she was confident in the ability of her teachers and other staff members to find a way to restructure in order to mitigate the worst effects of transitioning to the new equilibrium staff level.

Martin Lord & Osman
Salmon Press
Alton School
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