Amendment to Cut Already Reduced School Budget Fails

An effort to lower an already-amended Derry School District budget failed in a secret ballot, and the budget proposed by the School Board will go to the voters March 11.

The School Board’s working budget of $80,817,146 was reduced to $80,539,895, a difference of $277,000, after an updated tuition figure came in from Pinkerton Academy, the high school of record for the district. Pinkerton officials informed the board last week that due to an enrollment agreement with the Hooksett School District, more than 100 Hooksett eighth-graders would be coming to Pinkerton next year as freshmen.

Derry and the other “sending schools” had been facing a tuition increase of $504.34 per student, but after the Hooksett students were calculated in, that number was reduced to an increase of $363.66, a difference of $140.68 per student. It was reflected in both the working budget and the default budget, which was lowered from $81,150,792 to $80,873,541.89 in light of the Hooksett addition.

But several voters pressed for more.

The West Running Brook Middle School gym was crowded, with voters spilling over to the bleachers. The meeting lasted from 10 a.m. to almost 1 p.m.

Moderator Roger Konstant sketched out the rules, which included each person having a 3-minute total at the microphone, and debate pertaining only to the subject matter on the warrant. He reminded voters that the wording of the article was not “amendable,” only the amount of the budget. “If you are redundant, I will cut off debate,” he warned. He also said that any motions would be approved by a simple majority, or 51 percent.

Board member Dan McKenna presented the budget. He reminded voters of the School District’s three main goals, to have all students learning at a high level, to have a safe and positive school environment, and to increase community involvement. McKenna said the budget was crafted with these in mind.

He went over changes in the budget from last year, including positions added and reduced. He said the district hoped to reinstate the position of Assistant Director of Student Services, add a middle school library assistant, and fund the fifth-grade teacher for Grinnell School who was added this past fall. He said the budget includes contracted raises for teachers and teacher assistants. Several positions will be reduced based on declining enrollment, he added, with 4.2 net positions to be reduced.

McKenna referenced the district’s having to pay a higher share of staff and teacher retirement and a decrease in revenue, with the amount of adequacy aid going down because it is based on enrollment and enrollment has declined. There is also a decrease in federal aid, he said, and school building aid has been reduced because it is tied to debt service.

The district paid off its bond on West Running Brook this year, eliminating an expense of $495,000. The district is proposing $58,000 in instructional materials, to bolster critical early reading skills, he said.

The amended budget is expected to be a 3-cent per $1,000 decrease on the tax rate, he said, and a 1.72 percent decrease from last year’s budget.

In a show of voters’ cards, the majority accepted the amended, lower working budget.

Residents had many questions, including some related to the $800,000 that was added back to the budget from last year’s deliberative session. McKenna said not all the $800,000 was spent. The district spent $257,000 on the educational assistants’ new contract, the fifth-grade teacher at Grinnell, a fifth-grade aide at Barka Elementary School, and a guidance counselor at South Range Elementary School. The rest of the money went in the unexpended fund balance and will be used to reduce the tax rate, he said.

Town Councilor Mark Osborne expressed unease about the budget process in general, noting, “During the opening statements I heard the comment, ‘The budget is centered around goals.’ This is not how people live every day their budgets are not centered around their goals.” He said that businesses did not budget that way and asked, “Can we do a budget this coming year with the goal of not having a tax increase?’”

“That’s a big-picture discussion,” Konstant said.

Resident Lynn Perkins said he didn’t approve of the working budget, even though it was lower. He contended the School Board was playing a “shell game,” and returned again to the $800,000 added in last year, saying, “Last year’s budget was ransacked.”

Perkins proposed an amendment to the amended budget, with a dollar figure of $79,817,146.18. Mike Stankus seconded, and the motion was open to discussion.

Resident Kevin Coyle said since 2002 there has been a 25 percent decrease in enrollment, or 1,300 students, and he said since 2002 the district has added staff, going from 498 to 508 in 2014. He charged that the district has not been “proactive” and has not made changes to administration.

“Your amendment was not a huge decrease,” Coyle said. He called for a secret ballot on the amendment, and produced the required number of signatures.

Resident Brian Lane argued for the School Board’s amended budget, observing the district has no control over Pinkerton tuition, one-third of its budget. If the Perkins budget went through, he said, all the cuts would be in grades Kindergarten-8. With Special Education in particular, he said, “We have a moral obligation.”

Resident Barbara Henderson said, “What we pay for taxes is outrageous” and noted many of the seniors in her condo community were struggling. “You need to consider what the public can afford,” she said.

John Murphy, a longtime member of the Fiscal Advisory Committee, countered that the School Board’s budget was fiscally responsible. “This amendment would decimate the School District,” he predicted.

Though Konstant tried to keep the discussion to the budget, residents at the microphone ventured into the territory of who’s to blame. Patty O’Neill said, “The School Board has the least amount of power. It should be up to the Town Council and state legislators to do something the budget should not have to be dependent on property taxpayers.”

Councilor Al Dimmock responded, “The Town Council is not responsible. I as a Councilor have done everything in my power to get a level-funded budget. I’m in favor of education, but within reason. You need to look at the big picture, see where you can help.”

Council Chairman Michael Fairbanks said, “I read your three strategic goals. I didn’t see a goal to deal with declining enrollment.”

He added he was in favor of the “spirit” of Perkins’ amendment, but not the amount.

McKenna said the board would be looking at enrollment as part of the second goal, which deals with buildings and facilities.

“The federal government is at fault for giving us mandates,” Melissa Benson said.

Resident Maureen Rose suggested a “head fee” of up to $500 for every child in a family, observing that many families with children live in rental property and don’t pay property taxes, yet have children in the schools. “This would save the taxpayers some money,” she said.

Other residents urged more focus on development, to increase business and industry and relieve the tax burden on homeowners.

State Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, said discussions had taken place in Concord regarding Derry’s tax burden. Pinkerton Academy is assessed at $35 million to $40 million but pays no taxes, yet uses town services, in particular police and fire. “I’d like to see the other sending communities pay their fair share of that,” he said. Sapareto was unsuccessful in sponsoring legislation to address that issue.

Perkins said he didn’t think the Council was responsible for the high taxes. “The School Board,” he said, “is not restrained by a tax cap.”

The meeting was put on pause as residents went into the school cafeteria to vote on Perkins’ amendment. It failed, 68 yes to 165 no. The School Board’s amended budget will be moved to the ballot for March.

Approximately 2 percent of the registered voters voted in the deliberative session. Renee Routhier, head of the Supervisors of the Checklist, said 245 voters signed in and 233 voted on the Perkins amendment. Derry has 20,115 registered voters, she said.