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GRS Cooperative voters approve budget, reject contract extension

March 11, 2011
GORHAM — Voters from Randolph, Shelburne and Gorham agreed to a $7.9 million budget for the 2011-2012 school year, but flatly rejected the proposed three-year extension to the cooperative school district's teachers' contract.

The annual meeting of the Gorham Randolph Shelburne Cooperative School District lasted two and a half hours last Thursday, March 3, and while there was plenty of debate, all of the warned items passed as written, with the exception of the contract extension, which was defeated 223 to 37 in a requested ballot vote. The teachers' union had asked to renegotiate the final year of their contract in hopes of extending it through the 2014-15 school year and giving up their 2011-12 raises in order to retain a high school English teaching position that was slated to be cut.

Voters were opposed to the idea, however, citing an uncertain economy and rich union benefits as reasons they would not go along with an extension with a price tag of more than $200,000 over the extension period. The proposal, if accepted would have reduced the 2011-2012 budget by $33,316.

"(A) four-year contract is not fiscally responsible," PJ Cyr told the school board in his argument against the item. "Come back to the table next year. See if the biomass plant is headed in the right direction; if the mill is operational; if the federal prison opens."

Bill Jackson spoke up as well noting that town employees had not received raises in four years and the school was going to have to start dealing with the circumstances being faced by everyone. "The pain's got to start somewhere," he said.

Jay Holmes said he felt that this was the time of year when voters get to stand up and speak to save their homes. He felt it was important to note that when the contract negotiation was ratified it was by a 5-3 school board vote, a quorum, but two Gorham board representatives were missing. Residents also asked that the negotiation process be explained so they could let their elected officials know what they would like to see in future contracts. The crowd was told that SAU 20 Superintendent Paul Bousquet represents the administration in support-staff negotiations, while SAU 20 Business Administrator Pauline Plourde handles the teacher negotiations. Each of them are joined by one to two school board members at the table with a couple of union members and their NEA representative on the other side. Once the contract is negotiated it goes before the union members and school board for ratification and then the taxpayers have the final say.

The school budget was the main discussion for the evening, but while much was made of the likely Gorham tax rate increase in excess of $2 per thousand, no one proposed amending the budget figure down and the majority of citizens present raised their red voting cards in favor of the measure. Facing around $1 million shortfall, half attributed to increased insurance and other administrative costs and the other half attributed to an anticipated loss of state education aid, the district cut five teachers, five para-professionals, a part-time custodian and administrative assistant, Bousquet explained. A soft-freeze on spending was instituted before the New Year, however, and the district hopes to accumulate a surplus to offset the some of the increases, but budgeted conservatively on their revenues.

Plourde told voters that the revenue outlook presented is a "worst-case scenario. We always believe in telling you what we have for a know fact," she said.

Many suggestions came from the crowd, most looking to contain costs — including proposals for salary caps, increased staff contributions to health insurance and other items. "Something has to change we cannot continue to pay these costs," one man stated, noting it takes his entire social security check annually to cover his property taxes and personal health insurance.

The voters approved a one-year support staff contract at a cost of $15,698 and agreed to place $51,500 in various capital reserve and expendable trust funds. They also voted to fund the school lunch program at $210,000, any federal grants at up to $275,000 and withdraw $220,000 from the Gorham Building Capital Reserve Fund to be applied toward that town's portion of construction bond debt.

At the start of the meeting some recognitions were given. Cameron Laware, who was not present, was thanked for providing the cover art for the annual report and retiring Ed Fenn School Nurse, Barbara Arnold was recognized for her 19 years of service. Bousquet called her the "best school nurse I've ever seen."

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