February 08, 2012BRISTOL — Newfound Regional High School saw a packed auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 4 as community members gathered for Newfound Area School District's first deliberative session.
Warrant Article 7, the district's proposed operating budget for next year, was the main topic of discussion throughout the morning. With a significant decrease in the budget for next year, Budget Committee Chair Fran Wendelboe explained the rationale behind the proposed cuts to the public.
"Our tax dollar and children's education are the most important," said Wendelboe, who explained where the $21,597,525 proposed budget came from.
A large area that the budget committee considered was information collected by the Data Task Force. The task force surveyed several districts similar to Newfound, and found that behind Bow and Gilford, Newfound had the third highest budget.
"Unfortunately, when looking at academic results, districts that were spending less were having more academic success than we were," Wendelboe pointed out.
Initially, the budget committee set their sights on a $20 million budget, but with school board recommendations and other considerations, settled on the current proposed budget.
"We said, 'Let's take a middle step and see how it goes,'" Wendelboe said.
Unlike in years past, both the school board and budget committee were in agreement and comfortable with the proposed budget.
"This year, we are in agreement, and this year, we hope the voters are in agreement," said Wendelboe.
Voters, however, didn't seem to be in complete agreement with this year's proposed budget. First, the public voiced concerns about educator's healthcare benefits.
"Is it ethical to lower your burden and raise the burden on others?" asked a resident from Bristol.
Wendelboe explained that public sector employees' benefits are, in the opinion of many budget committee members, out of line with private sector employees.
"The other big area of change is the reduction of healthcare benefits," said Wendelboe. "Unfortunately, public sector employees have very generous health benefits, which are completely out of alignment with private sector employees."
Wendelboe explained that the initial proposal was to provide no benefits. Ultimately, however, the committee agreed to endorse a proposal that would see district employees completely covered, and their spouses partially covered.
"It would only be employees with families that it would faze," said Wendelboe.
She also noted that there are other options for families to ensure that their children are covered.
"There are plans that cover children more cost effectively than the school district's plan," said Wendelboe.
Community members looked for other means to reduce the budget, rather than cutting teachers' benefits, asking about the cost of athletics, the cost of bussing and sending certain students to Mount Prospect Academy and cutting money for substitutes.
"In the real world, how many people pay their employer to work?" asked Jennifer Bernett of Danbury.
The first amendment to Article 7, proposed by Tom Arnold of Bristol, would have changed the proposed budget from $21,597,525 to $20 million.
"I value independence and critical thinking. I think the time has come to think out of the box, and use the bargaining agreement to come down to $20 million," said Arnold.
The amendment, seconded by Don Milbrand of Bristol, created a stir.
"If you are given the $20 million, the school board can make the cuts to make this work," said Milbrand.
Throughout the discussion on the amendment, members of the school board and budget committee continued to remind the public that they both agreed with the proposed budget.
"The school board supports the proposed budget," said Budget Committee member Simon Barnett. "We could not find the areas to cut in the budget to make a $20 million budget."
Superintendent Marie Ross reminded the public also that they called the $20 million budget "the scenario." The amendment was voted down.
Another amendment was proposed by Miles Sinclare, to increase the budget by about $350,000 to help alleviate the load that teachers would be forced to carry.
"I try to be a fair and objective person," said Sinclare. "There is right, and there is wrong. It is a disproportionate share they are being forced to bare. This amendment is to make things more manageable for the employees so they don't have to carry such a burden."
The final vote on Sinclare's amendment was so evenly split after a voice vote and a show of hands that it went to ballot voting, but was ultimately shot down, 266 to 258.
A third and final amendment was proposed to Article 7 asking for an increase in the budget by $258,000, intended to keep local fifth graders in their respective elementary schools. The school board and budget committee were, at one point, looking to move the fifth and sixth grades into a separate wing of the middle school building to "utilize space."
Community members and parents feared that the school board had no proposed plan for the move, and were afraid that fifth graders aren't prepared to be buses to the middle school.
"My fourth grader is a little peanut," said Susan Colby of Bristol. "She is not ready to be a middle schooler. It is not time to feed the guppies to the sharks."
Ross explained that there was a plan in place if the fifth grade was to move to the middle school, and that there has been great detail and thought placed on this consideration.
"In order to make a five-to-eight model into a middle school model, it would be a different model than in the past," said Ross.
Ross explained that the fifth grade would be in their own wing of the middle school, and have no contact with the seventh or eighth grade on a day-to-day basis.
"The fifth graders would be self contained in a wing, and specials would be all fifth graders," said Ross.
Ross added that the transition would be a smooth one because there would be a fifth grade transition program put into place where sixth grade teachers would observe fifth grade classrooms and talk in depth with fifth grade teachers about individual needs.
"We can guarantee an excellent education, but it may not be the home feeling that we all hope for," said Ross.
The amendment to increase the budget by $258,000 with the intent to keep the fifth grade in the elementary school was voted against.
Articles 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 were only discussed briefly, and at the end of the day, all warrant articles will appear on the ballot on Tuesday, March 13 as written in the warrant. Public Hearings will be held in each of the seven towns on petitioned warrant articles 3 and 6, starting with Bristol on Monday, Feb. 13 at 6 p.m.