January 18, 2012BRISTOL — Following a lengthy and wide-ranging Public Budget Hearing in the Newfound Regional High School Auditorium last Wednesday evening, the Newfound School District Budget Committee voted to approve the School Board's recommended $21,597,525 Operating Budget for FY2012-12. That figure, representing a $2 million cut from original school budget requests, will appear on the warrant for the voters' consideration at the Deliberative Session of the Annual District Meeting, which is scheduled to take place on Saturday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. in the High School Auditorium. Snow date is Saturday, Feb. 11.
The budget and additional warrant articles, as amended at the Deliberative Session, will go before the voters for final approval by official ballot at the polls on Tuesday, March 13. School Board positions for representatives from Danbury, Hebron and Groton will also be on the ballot at that time. Should the budget article, as amended, be defeated by the voters at the polls, the Default Budget of $21,700,092 will be enacted for the following year.
School Board Chairman Mary Campbell began last week's public hearing by introducing the non-budget articles on the warrant. Additional public hearings on petitioned warrant articles will be scheduled throughout the district in the upcoming weeks. In addition to an Expendable Trust Fund article presented by the board, petitioned warrant articles received by the deadline include a proposal to set a two percent annual limit for increases to the amount of the school budget to be raised by taxation, a proposal for a feasibility study for adding a Junior High , grades seven and eight, as a wing to the Newfound Regional High School, and a feasibility study for creating four separate local school districts, Kindergarten through eighth grades, with a cooperative school district for Grades nine – 12. Finally, there will be a petitioned warrant article to rescind the provisions of SB2, the official ballot, and return to the School District Meeting, which gives citizens a final vote at the annual meeting, rather than at the polls.
Newfound School Budget Committee Chairman Fran Wendelboe shepherded the department by department presentation and public input session on the budget. At the outset of the proceedings, she noted that the School Budget Committee had agreed to present the $21.6 million school board recommended budget for the purposes of receiving public input, but that a final vote on the figure to be included on the warrant would take place following the public hearing. She indicated that several members of the budget committee wanted the opportunity to consider further reducing the proposed operating budget to $20 million, representing a $4 million cut from original school department requests. But a motion to decrease the budget further failed to achieve sufficient budget committee approval following the public hearing, and the $21.6 million figure ultimately prevailed.
In her remarks at the public hearing, Wendelboe said that the school board and budget committee had worked hard over the course of many months, and made a number of tough decisions over the course of their deliberations, and she was confident that a quality education could be provided for Newfound District students while eliminating $2 million from the original school department budget requests.
Given the statistics compiled by the District Data Task Force over the past six months, comparing Newfound School District expenses and performance scores to other local districts, Wendelboe said she felt it was clear that the Newfound Schools had been "over-funded" and "over-staffed" as compared to similar districts, and that a "realignment" was in order.
"We have found that other districts can achieve better results for less money," said Wendelboe.
She said that a $20 million budget was justified in terms of comparisons with funding levels in similar surrounding communities
Wendelboe said that the recommended budget represented no salary increases for district employees. It anticipates the elimination of 15 teachers and five paraprofessional staff members, as well as one administrator. The proposed budget would keep Danbury Elementary School open, but would entail a reconfiguration to increase average class sizes, in part by relocating fifth graders from local elementary schools in the district to the Newfound Memorial Middle School in Bristol, which has space to accommodate them.
In addition, there would be a restructuring of the healthcare benefits for support staff, including the addition of deductibles and an increase in co-pays in order to achieve $700,000 in cost savings. Union employees have reportedly opted to maintain a "status quo" contract for the 2012-13 school year, with no raises or cost of living increases, but no renegotiation of benefits for the upcoming year.
A lengthy discussion on the impact of the budget proposal ensued, with a wide range of viewpoints expressed.
Several attendees expressed concern that support staff seemed to be bearing a disproportionate burden in the process of decreasing the budget.
"I am afraid we are achieving these cuts on the backs of a relatively small group of people who are, on average, the lowest paid people in the district," commented Mike McKinney.
A number of parents expressed concern about the educational and safety implications of relocating fifth graders to the Newfound Memorial Middle School in Bristol. But former Newfound School Administrator Archie Auger said that combining fifth through eighth grades had previously worked out well for the district during his tenure at the Middle School in the 1990's.
Auger thanked both the School Board and Budget Committee for efforts to get the budget process going "in the right direction."
"The public has said we've got to have some control," said Auger.
Several attendees expressed frustration that further cuts were not being considered, including the closing of Danbury Elementary School. Both the School Board and Budget Committee have balked at reversing the district's long held tradition of support for local community schools. Both boards have also declined to completely eliminate benefits for support staff as part of the effort to decrease costs this year.
Maggie LaBerge said she spoke for all those Newfound residents on a fixed income, whose taxes had increased dramatically in recent years. She said that many surrounding towns did not pay healthcare costs for part-time or support staff, and that the district should strive for larger class sizes.
"We would like to see a budget between $18 and $20 million," said LaBerge. "If we cannot achieve this, then many of us will be moving out of town because we will no longer be able to afford to pay taxes."