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School Data Task Force resets budget conversation

November 09, 2011
BRISTOL—The Newfound School District Data Comparison Task Force presented a summary of their findings to a crowd of almost 90 interested citizens and taxpayers at an open public forum in the auditorium of the Newfound Regional High School (NRHS) on Monday night.

The hope is that grounding the school budget process in well-documented statistics and thorough comparative analysis will help to steer the difficult budget discussions ahead toward the most constructive and profitable channels for maintaining and improving education while reducing costs.

Following the Annual School District Meeting (Deliberative Session) last February, the School Board commissioned and charged the Task Force with assembling an extensive data set based on similar school districts in New Hampshire from which legitimate financial and performance comparisons might be drawn in order to shed light on places where the School budget might be cut in order to achieve better or equal student performance outcomes with less expenditures.

Task Force members include School Board members Vincent Paul Migliore and Chairman Lou Lieto, and Newfound School Business Administrator Dan Rossner. The team spent countless hours gathering and analyzing data from Newfound and other school districts across the state of New Hampshire.

The following school districts were among those identified as similar enough in demographics and other critical variables to Newfound that they might be used for constructive comparative analysis: Bow, Farmington, Franklin, Gilford, Hillsboro-Deering, Litchfield, Jaffrey-Rindge, Mascenic, Mascoma, Pembroke, Raymond, Shaker Valley, White Mountain and Winnisquam.

The full report can be found on the Newfound School District Web site at www.sau4.org. A second open public forum for feedback and discussion is scheduled for Dec. 7, from 6:30 until 8:30 p.m. in the NRHS Auditorium.

Reminding attendees that "everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts" in his opening remarks Monday night, District Data Comparison Task Force Chairman Lou Lieto stressed that the report is the starting point for the policy discussion that will follow. The responsibility for making decisions based on the data that has been gathered belongs to the School Board, the Budget Committee, and ultimately, the District voters.

While identifying several "areas of opportunity" where potential changes could be made to bring the Newfound budget into alignment with some of the other school districts, the Task Force stopped short of making any budget or policy recommendations.

Areas of opportunity include health care and other benefits offered to Newfound District personnel, which are among the most generous in the state, and possibly, Special Education expenditures.

The Mascenic School District was one similar district that was identified as having made some innovative changes to help reduce costs in several areas. There was agreement that it would be profitable for Newfound School Board members and educators to study their efforts further.

Significantly, a thorough, independent analysis of District Transportation costs has indicated that no further efficiencies are likely to be found in that category the near future.

It was noted by several members of the public that one reason for some of the higher relative operating costs in the Newfound District stems clearly from the community consensus in favor of keeping open a number of smaller, separate, community elementary schools, rather than consolidating into fewer buildings. Consolidation would undoubtedly result in a reduction of per pupil expenditures in the district. It was acknowledged that such a decision would be a major policy shift that could come only after a new community consensus had been reached.

Newfound School Superintendent Marie Ross said that some of the changes that are underway or contemplated for the future will be phased in over time, and that it will take several years to reap the benefits in terms of savings and student performance. She cautioned school officials to be careful not to attempt to implement too many changes too quickly, and jeopardize student progress in the process.

In addition to the District Data Comparison numbers, Vincent Paul Migliore Monday night presented a separate analysis for the Newfound Health Care Task Force, which was charged, after the Annual Meeting last year, with investigating the potential of "self-insuring" the Newfound School District in lieu of purchasing commercially available health plans to meet contractual obligations to employees.

After thorough research, "the conclusion was pretty simple," said Migliore. "It's a 'no go' for the self insurance option."

Migliore reported that in the State of New Hampshire, there is only one district that currently self- insures—Fall Mountian, SAU 60 in Charlestown — and that they are looking to get out of the arrangement. The reason that the option is not popular is clear. There is a very high risk potential for not being able, in any given year, to meet claims and payout obligations. On the other hand, there is a relatively small potential budgetary savings of something on the order of an estimated three percent to four percent that might result from adopting self-insurance.

However, the Task Force does acknowledge that there are other changes that might be made to the structure of health care benefits offered to Newfound District employees that could result in substantial savings within the existing arrangements, and there is the potential that new municipal and school district "risk pools" may ultimately be formed which would substantially alter the competitive terrain for health care insurance plans in the state of New Hampshire in future years. Stay tuned.

Salmon Press
Martin Lord Osman
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