Newfound voters reject school budget cuts
February 16, 2011NEWFOUND—The voters at the First Deliberative Session of the Newfound School District Annual Meeting on Friday evening, Feb. 11, elected to support the school board's recommended budget, passing an amendment to restore $912,689 of funds to the school Budget Committee's proposed operating budget of $23,008,425 for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
The Newfound School District Warrant now heads to the polls for voters' approval on March 8 with an operating budget of $23,921,114. Should Article 6 not pass at the polls, the default budget will be $24,075,626.
School Budget Committee Chairman Archie Auger said that the Budget Committee's proposed budget represented a 1.8 percent increase over the current year, while the school board's recommended budget brings the increase to 5.2 percent.
"That sort of increase is more than a lot of voters think they can swing right now in these difficult economic times," said Auger. "The Budget Committee feels that we should not be increasing the amount of money coming out of the taxpayers' pocket."
Auger said that the Budget Committee had directed the SAU administration to find ways to cut the budget that would result in "minimal impact" to the academic programs.
But the school board, which has gone along with the Budget Committee's goal of level funding for the last few years despite increasing costs in some of the areas of the budget that they cannot control, this year refused to acquiesce to the Budget Committee's goals in the budget cutting process. Following suggestions from the Budget Committee, school officials were able to pare the proposed budget down to the Budget Committee number, but the resulting cuts would have eliminated four additional teachers, 12 academic interventionists, two school nurses, two guidance counselors and several other programs. The school board, and ultimately the voters at the Deliberative Session, felt the impact would be too severe.
In his presentation to the Deliberative Session, Auger said that the Newfound school budget has experienced a 32 percent increase since 2006, while at the same time, enrollment had declined by about 1.4 percent, from 1,487 students in 2006 to a projected 1,340 in the district in 2011.
"We need to get control of finances," said Auger. "The budget is up, enrollment is down. That is very difficult for the taxpayers."
But in defending the amendment to increase the budget, school board member Lou Lieto said that these increases were largely the result of fixed costs over which the school district has no control, including $5.5 million dedicated to students with special needs and court ordered out-of-district placements. School officials said that Newfound has an unusually large number of students in this category, bringing the average per pupil costs substantially above the state average.
"The real issue here is that the impact (of the proposed cuts) will result in a reduction in the number of people who directly interact with students," said Lieto. "Research has shown that if there is a magic bullet for improving the academic performance of students, it is direct instructional time. Research has also shown that if you don't correct learning deficiencies by the time a child gets through the third grade, you will never have the resources to make up for it later in their academic career."
Lieto explained that the Newfound schools had, in recent years, achieved considerable success in improving students' academic performance because there has been a "tremendous district-wide effort to do better."
It is precisely those gains that many teachers and parents felt was jeopardized by the budget cuts that have been proposed.
There was extensive discussion of the Newfound district's higher than average class size and per pupil costs.
Alexandria resident Todd Westfall presented statistics comparing Newfound with three other local New Hampshire school districts of similar population and levels of academic performance. He noted that each of these schools is able to achieve academic success with far fewer taxpayer resources.
Newfound school Superintendent Marie Ross cautioned against making such comparisons with districts that do not have the same number of out-of-district placements, or similar transportation costs spread over a large geographic area. She indicated that the school has made every effort to reduce class sizes whenever numbers have allowed for classes to be combined, but she said that unless the community is willing to consider reducing the total number of schools in the district, this strategy is limited in scope. She said the Newfound School Board has operated under the assumption that the district values its community-based schools, and there is no broad consensus for consolidating schools at this time.
The Newfound School District Warrant also includes a one-year collective bargaining agreement between the school board and the Newfound Area Teachers' Association, which reduced salaries, and thereby the operating budget for 2011-2012, by the amount of $22,275.
There are two petitioned warrant articles, one requesting the school board to explore the possibility of "self insuring" health benefits to its employees as a potential cost saving measure. The Deliberative Session approved an amendment by Bridgewater resident Vinny Migliore to include language specifically asking for the study to include the possibility of a zero co-pay for employees.
A second petitioned article asks to have the default budget set by the Budget Committee rather than the school board, as is now the case. No one spoke in support of this warrant article at the Deliberative Session, and no amendments were proposed, but a voice vote indicated that a large number in attendance may not have been in favor of the article. Nevertheless it will appear on the warrant as submitted because according to counsel, as written, it cannot be amended or stricken by statute.