Plymouth voters back school board on budget


March 09, 2011
PLYMOUTH—The Annual Plymouth School District Meeting drew a large crowd this past Monday evening in the Plymouth Elementary School (PES) Gymnasium.

When all was said and done, after two and a half hours of discussion and debate, the assembled voters ultimately chose to approve the school board's $8,029,620 recommended base budget for 2011-2012, and gave the board full discretion on how to spend any additional revenues that may come in the form of the so-called legislative "collar" under consideration in Concord to stabilize the school funding system in New Hampshire for at least the next two years.

The School Board's base budget, Article 6 on the School Warrant, is based on the assumption that Plymouth will not receive some $775,799 in state school aid that it would have received under the old funding formula, unless the "collar" legislation should be passed in Concord later this year.

This is the year that the school "adequacy" funding formula, coming out of the Claremont Decision, was to have gone into effect, giving some districts more funds and others, like Plymouth, significantly less support for local education.

However, legislation to preserve funding for towns like Plymouth, in the form of the "collar," has already made it successfully through the House of Representatives and is being considered in the Senate this week. The Governor has indicated he would sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. However, the situation is fluid, as legislators continue to grapple with the ongoing budget battle in the state capitol, and the funding issue is unlikely to be completely resolved until later in the legislative session.

Furthermore, Superintendent Mark Halloran warned that Plymouth may face even more cuts in state funding, from sources totally unrelated to school "adequacy." These are currently represented in several areas of the Governor's recently introduced budget, which includes an increase in the local share of health and pension costs for employees, and significant cuts in other state sources of aid.

Given that uncertainly, the School Board's base budget makes some significant cuts as well, including 6.6 full-time equivalent to personnel (teachers), as well as cuts to athletic and other after school activities at PES.

However, Article 5 on the School District Warrant asked voters to give the school board latitude to rehire some or all of the teachers that have been eliminated in the base budget, or use the $775,799 in "unanticipated" state aid to reduce taxes, in the event that Plymouth ultimately receives the "collar."

After a procedural motion offered by able parliamentarian Patrice Scott was embraced by the voters, the District Meeting proceeded to thoroughly discuss the base budget, Article 6, before discussing the "contingency" in the case of additional revenue provided for in Article 5.

Halloran explained that if the school board's base budget is adopted, and Plymouth does not receive the additional $775,799 "collar," Plymouth residents could see a $2.05 per thousand valuation increase on the school portion of the tax rate due to a variety of increases in fixed costs next year. If the additional money is received, the board may use some or all of it to reduce taxes, in which case the residents' school tax increase could be reduced to as little as 30 cents per thousand next year.

District voters fended off an amendment to Article 6, offered by Henry Ahern, to decrease the base budget by an additional $100,000 to a total of $7,949,030 — a figure he said was intended to represent a true "level funding" of the school portion of the tax rate for the following year.

A number of advocates for the amendment raised the plight of Plymouth's elderly population, having to choose between food and fuel, prescription drugs and rent, on a low, fixed income. Several raised the specter of longtime residents being "taxed out of town" to pay for the schools.

School Board Chair Mike Bullek said that the amendment would mean additional staff cuts and an increase in class sizes at Plymouth Elementary School.

School Board member Wilma Hyde said that the school board had worked very hard to come in with a budget that was a tight as possible, making many painful cuts while absorbing increases in fixed costs occasioned by contractual obligations, increases in fuel costs, increases in health insurance and the first year of payment on the bond for the Plymouth Elementary School renovations that were approved by the District voters last year.

Paul Philips said that he was opposed to the amendment and hoped that the school board would choose to hire back the 4.6 teachers in the event that the "collar" came through.

"I am concerned because the Meeting made a decision last year to renovate the school," he said. "I still think that was the right decision because otherwise, we would have lost the opportunity to have 60 percent of the cost paid by state building aid. But we knew at the time that the bond would increase the tax rate this year by 83 cents per thousand, and we voted for it anyway. Now, we are trying to reduce the increase to the tax rate to 30 cents per thousand or less. We need to look at the impact on the teachers, the schools and the kids. If we pass this off onto our teachers, I think that is fundamentally unfair."

After a thorough and spirited debate, the amendment to reduce the base budget by $100,000 was defeated, by a vote of 34 in favor, 94 against.

Article 6, the school board's base budget of $8,029,620, was then passed by secret ballot by a vote of 124 in favor, 36 opposed.

Voters also defeated an amendment to Article 5 offered by Select Board member Charlie Buhrman that would have restricted the school board's options for using the $775,799 in "collar" money, if it is received from the state, to paying down the principle on the debt for the Plymouth Elementary School renovation.

Buhrman said he was concerned that the town of Plymouth was facing two other "desperately needed" infrastructure improvements in the form of new Police and Fire Public Safety facilities on the town warrant this year. Given the timing, he felt it was essential that Plymouth make an effort to reduce debt obligations at this time.

Again, Phillips responded by saying that the voters had approved the bond for the renovation in good faith at last year's meeting.

"While we can regret the coincidence of timing with the Public Safety Buildings, I would prefer to keep the two issues separate," said Phillips.

In any case, he objected to "pink slipping" teachers this year to pay for the bond for renovations that District voters passed last year.

The amendment to Article 5, to use any additional revenues to pay down the principle on the bond for PES renovations, was defeated on a voice vote and the Meeting proceeded to give the School Board the discretion it requested to determine what to do with any additional revenue that may, or may not, come to Plymouth from the state of New Hampshire. Article 5 passed by secret ballot by a vote of 86 in favor, and 51 opposed.

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