Derry School District Cuts Budget to $77,677,000

The Derry School Board and Fiscal Advisory Committee are recommending further cuts to the working budget totaling $1,350,000, an amount they say will meet requests to trim expenses while still delivering essential services.

The board and Advisory Committee met Monday night to wrestle the budget into shape after requests from a tax-weary community to keep expenses down. While they could not meet a $2 million cut suggested two weeks ago, they were able to find the $1,350,000 through various strategies. The new bottom line, which will be discussed in a public hearing Jan. 13, is $77,677,000.

The two groups moved their meeting to the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School gym for the second week in a row to accommodate about 100 people, including teachers, administrators, community members, members of the Legislative delegation and Town Councilors.

In its first meeting in October, the administration brought the board and committee a working figure of $79,027,113 for a 2015-16 budget, an increase of $987,217.10 over the current appropriation of $78,039,985.

Cuts and savings agreed upon Monday by the two groups include:

• Reducing three elementary classrooms at a savings of $210,000, the so-named Options 3 and 4;

• Reducing one middle school music teacher and one middle school computer teacher, so-named Option 2, at a savings of $140,000;

• Delaying work on two parking lots, saving $50,000;

• Reducing the non-union wage pool for raises, saving $75,000;

• Reducing the bus fleet by one regular education bus, saving $48,072;

• Delaying purchase of a proxy server for the elementary schools, saving $19,000;

• Reducing 15 students from the Pinkerton Academy budget because they are going to Next Charter School, saving $164,469;

• Next Charter School tuition reduction, saving $7,068;

• Revised Pinkerton special education tuition rates, bringing a decrease of $26,629; and

• Revised Pinkerton regular education rates, bringing a savings of $214,513. The administration had budgeted for a 4 percent Pinkerton tuition hike on the advice of Pinkerton Headmaster Griffin Morse, but when the Pinkerton budget was finalized last week, it worked out to be a 2.89 percent increase and affected the above tuition rates.

Last week the administration presented its so-called “Option 1” for elementary schools, which would entail cutting 13 classroom teacher positions, thus reducing the elementary classrooms by 13. This would take four classrooms from East Derry Memorial, three from Derry Village, two from South Range, one from Grinnell and three from Barka, for a net savings of $910,000. The board expressed reluctance to cut so many classrooms and thus increase class sizes.  Option One for the middle schools would have involved condensing Literature and Composition positions into one English Language Arts position across the grades, along with the computer and music positions, for a net savings of $560,000.

Superintendent Laura Nelson came back this week with Option Two, which would cut the music and computer teachers in middle school for a savings of $140,000, but leave the Literature and Composition positions alone. Option Two for elementary would reduce East Derry by three classrooms, Derry Village by one, South Range by two and Barka by two. No reductions were planned for Grinnell. The reduction of eight classrooms would result in a savings of $560,000.

The board expressed reluctance to combine the Literature and Composition positions, noting that would increase class sizes.

The groups had discussed eliminating two positions in PACE (Program for Acceleration and Curriculum Enhancement), which is for students performing above grade level. Board member Jeri Murphy asked Serena Levine, director of PACE, if services would be the same and Levine said, “Probably not.” The services would be reduced to fourth- and fifth-grade math enrichment, and much of their other work would fall on the classroom teachers, according to Levine.

Board members expressed concern about a proposed cut to a special education facilitator, noting they had cut the position before and it hadn’t worked out. The position was added back into the budget.

They agreed to eliminate either a social worker or a guidance counselor, at an estimated $70,000 savings, and left it up to Nelson and her team as to which one to cut. They eliminated a part-time elementary band position and cut a physical education position to 2/10. They also eliminated a Math Strategies position and an in-school suspension assistant, and removed the position of high school coordinator, which will now be assumed by assistant principals at the two middle schools.

Assistant principal positions were also briefly on the table, with committee member Bruce Kling wondering if the district could do without them or share them among schools. Nelson said the assistant principals were involved in everything from teacher evaluation to test preparation to discipline, all of which would fall on the principal or classroom teacher if they were eliminated. “It is not a ‘best practice,’” she told Kling.

East Derry Principal Kim Carpentino said the administrative team did look at reduction of assistant principals, but with the new Federal teacher evaluation standards, 20 percent more time will have to be spent on that next year.

Few members of either group were happy about a proposal to trim $84,846 for MacBook Airs for teachers. Ken Linehan said if it were cut, he hoped Nelson would find “another place in the budget to pay for them.”

Fiscal Advisory member Carl Accardo said the MacBooks are “imperative” for teacher effectiveness, and member Riccardo Buzzanga agreed. “I think Option 2 is the best,” Buzzanga said. “It handles the class sizes in a responsible manner.”

But Fiscal Advisory member Kling and board member Dan McKenna expressed a preference for Options 3 and 4, which would reduce one elementary classroom and two middle school classrooms for a total savings of $210,000. They were uncomfortable with the class sizes proposed in Options 2.

“It is too far too fast,” McKenna argued.

Fiscal Advisory member Craig Bulkley said he supported Option 2 and warned that with the Legislature back in session, all districts could expect a substantial reduction in aid. He also reminded the group of the $300,000 more the district would be expected to pay in state retirement costs.

Board member Wendy Smith said the district had no control over what Pinkerton does, “and we take the hit in K-8.”

“I am comfortable with this for the time being,” Murphy said, adding that they could take another look at it after the Facilities Committee finished its work.

Member Brenda Willis expressed reluctance to cut, noting that the district puts a lot of effort into training teachers and professional development. “They know our children, our families, our district,” she said.

McKenna made a motion to approve Options 3 and 4 for elementary, Option 2 for middle schools, keep the PACE teachers, keep the MacBooks, eliminate the parking lots, and trim the wage pool by $75,000. The final reduction was $1,350,000 and it was approved in an informal straw poll.

The public hearing on the budget will be Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 6:30 p.m. at West Running Brook Middle School.