Fiscal Advisory Wants More Cuts in School Budget

Derry School Administrative Unit (SAU) 10 Superintendent Laura Nelson is willing to look at another $300,000 worth of savings for the 2016-17 school district budget, but warned the School Board and Fiscal Advisory Committee, “It won’t be pretty. You are not going to be happy with it.”

The board and Fiscal Advisory Committee met Monday night in their ongoing series of budget review sessions. Members of both groups expressed concern about the working budget, which could bring an increase of $2,588,578 over last year’s approved budget. This is coupled with a $700,000 reduction in state aid. The two groups asked Nelson to look at places where she could trim the budget another $300,000.

Nelson had already brought a memo to the meeting detailing $700,000 in possible cuts, including postponing the purchase of a new math curriculum for grades Kindergarten-5 and trimming the number of “team” members in the middle schools. But the board and fiscal advisers pressed her for more.

Adviser Craig Bulkley recommended looking at the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the district and the Next Charter School. SAU 10 has been paying a portion of Next’s expenses since it opened three years ago, an amount decreasing over five years.

“Why are we subsidizing Next?” Bulkley asked. “I can understand why we did it the first couple of years, but when are they going to pay their own way?”

Board chair Dan McKenna said the district is committed to helping Next through a Memorandum of Understanding. “It benefits our students to be able to go there,” he said. Some of Derry’s Next students would have been in Special Education at Pinkerton, and the district saves money by sending them to Next, he said, because it doesn’t have the Pinkerton Special Education surcharge (See related story page 1).

“What if we renegotiated the MOU from five years to three years?” Bulkley asked. Board members agreed that as it was an MOU and not a contract, that was a possibility.

Fiscal adviser Melinda Davis asked about trimming the number of assistant principals. Nelson said the jobs Derry Assistant Principals do are often assumed by building Curriculum Coordinators in other districts. In addition, she said, the Assistant Principals are a key part of the new teacher evaluation model.

While other districts may not have as many Assistant Principals, Nelson said, “We can’t say, ‘Bedford is doing this with fewer people.’ We can talk about value-added, or what would happen if these positions were taken away.”

The teacher evaluation model would have to be taken back to the teachers’ union, she said, for renegotiation.

Assistant Principals are also involved in discipline, she noted. With fewer administrators, the district would have to let go of its in-school suspension program, because there would be no one to supervise these children.

More administrators also mean more visibility, Nelson said. “With the assistant principals visible around the building, we are able to minimize discipline issues,” she said.

Davis, a new member to the Advisory Committee, observed, “We are really challenged. We need to do something different, but there are no easy cuts.”

Other districts have gone to a four-day school week, board member Ken Linehan observed. While that would save on heating, lighting and transportation, “it is not something I can advocate,” he said.

Bulkley asked the board, “With a $3 million-plus increase, can you ‘sell’ this to the voters?”

Board member Brenda Willis said Pinkerton Academy tuition increases are a “huge part” of the general budget increase (See related story page 1). “Our K-8 students will suffer again because of Pinkerton,” she said. “I don’t think we can hand this budget to the taxpayers, and it makes me furious.”

Bulkley said, “I would like to see the administrators come in and say, ‘This is what we want to see reduced,’ by priority.”

But Nelson said the budget was already as lean as she could make it. And the items on her memo totaling $700,000 were not recommended cuts, she said, noting, “They are data.”

Fiscal Advisory member Ric Buzzanga suggested giving the administration a number and asking Nelson to lower the budget to that number,

McKenna said, “If we agree that the number on this sheet is too low, I would rather see the professional educators make the cuts.”

Bulkley warned that at the Jan. 30 deliberative session, “People will ask you what you’re doing to deal with declining enrollment.”

“There is not a lot to cut,” Nelson reiterated. “We could start to increase class sizes. But I don’t know what the future will look like if we don’t start to think globally about how we allocate our resources.

“In five years,” Nelson said, “We may be forced to make choices we don’t want to make.”

Davis observed, “I’d rather see two or three more children in a classroom than to cut the new math program.”

Bulkley said he would like to see a fund established to help with retirement costs. “Right now it’s unfunded, and if we don’t plan now, we’ll be hit with a large bill,” he said. “If we have an unfunded liability, we should protect ourselves.”

Adviser Walter Deyo said, “We need to level-fund this budget. We need to face what’s going on.”

“But let’s do it in a meaningful way,” Davis put in.

McKenna reiterated the request to Nelson and her staff to come up with an additional $300,000 in places where they could cut. “I’m not saying I support this,” he said. “I’m saying, let’s see what’s there. Then, when we go to deliberative, we’ve done our homework. We can say, ‘We can’t do it and this is why.’”