Hundreds Attend School Deliberative, Budget Unchanged

The proposed budget for the Derry Cooperative School District for 2015-16 will go on the warrant unchanged, after an effort to alter the bottom line did not receive the simple majority vote it needed to pass at Deliberative Session.

The District held its annual Deliberative Session last Saturday in the West Running Brook Middle School gym. More than 300 people turned out, filling the voters’ seats on the main floor and spilling over to the bleachers, to discuss and debate the proposed budget. Two hundred and seventy-four registered voters participated in the secret ballot, but the amendment proposed by Lynn Perkins did not pass.

School District Moderator Roger Konstant opened the meeting. West Running Brook eighth-grader Heidi Krantz led the Pledge of Allegiance and the West Running Brook seventh- and eighth-grade chorus and eighth-grade band performed the National Anthem.

The parking lot filled up early on, and latecomers were asked to park at Derry Village Elementary School.

Konstant reminded the group that there was a three-minute total time for speaking at the microphone, with former Superintendent John Moody keeping the stopwatch. “If all the speakers are done, you may return to the microphone,” Konstant said.

He warned the group to be civil and non-repetitive, with “no personal attacks or inappropriate language.” He also warned them that he would limit debate if they became redundant.

School Board member Dan McKenna presented the proposed budget. The total working budget, including revenues and self-funding programs, is $80,177,113. It is $934,785 lower than the default budget of $81,111,898 and $362,782 lower than last year’s budget.

McKenna reviewed the district’s goals, which include having every child from Kindergarten to Grade 12 learning at a high level; providing a safe and positive school environment; and increasing community involvement.

He met current issues head-on, including the one of declining school population.

McKenna said the Facilities Planning Committee will begin meeting Feb. 17 to review and suggest changes based on the Facilities Report completed last fall by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. “We will decide whether we need to reorganize, redistrict or close a school, and how to continue to provide a quality education in a fiscally responsible manner,” McKenna said.

He reminded voters that the budget supports five elementary schools with 2,260 students, two middle schools with 1,200 students, and pays tuition to the semi-private Pinkerton Academy for 1,900 high school students and tuition to Next Charter School for 45 high school students.

McKenna’s PowerPoint included a pie chart on the budget breakdown, with 34 percent going to salaries, 32 percent to Pinkerton tuition and 18 percent to benefits. The district teachers’ contract is set to expire this year and the negotiating parties have been unable to agree on a new contract, so there will be no teacher raises in this budget, he said.

The working budget includes a 15-cent per hour increase for paraprofessionals and a merit-based wage pool for non-contract employees for 1.5 percent raises.

McKenna spoke to the benefits line, noting that New Hampshire Retirement has increased the amount towns and school districts must contribute to retiree pensions. The employee share has gone from 10.77 percent to 11.17 percent, and the teacher percentage from 14.16 percent to 15.67 percent.  But health insurance came in with a guaranteed maximum increase of 1.9 percent and dental with no increase, leaving the net increase in the benefits line at $20,865.90.

High school tuition saw a 2.9 percent raise, or an extra $308.45, from Pinkerton Academy, McKenna said. Derry contributes 100 fewer students to the school now, so the net decrease is $721,707.30. Pinkerton Special Education tuition has increased by $861,819.73. Derry will also be sending 15 more students to Next Charter School at an increase of $125,870. But the out-of-district placements are down by $115,000, he added.

Curriculum additions include a new math program for the middle schools at $110,377 and pilot programs for math in K-5 at $7,500, he said.  “The current K-5 material is not aligned to the Common Core,” he said.

The district is also updating its Technical Education program, which has been used for 20 years, and hopes to go to an iPad-based system, with teachers building the curriculum, he said.

The budget also includes leasing MacBook Air laptops for teachers to replace their desktop units, which are 7 years old, at a cost of $84,846.36 for four years. “We can no longer get tech support for the desktops,” McKenna said, adding that the laptops would be used by teachers on their Blizzard Bag days.

He reviewed personnel cuts, which would include five elementary teachers, one middle-school computer teacher, a Math Strategies teacher, an in-school suspension coordinator, an elementary guidance position, and cuts in hours for elementary band, physical education and art positions. The total reduction will save $880,000, McKenna said.

McKenna said the actual amount to be raised by taxes for the general fund is $77,677,113; the $80 million also includes Food Service, which is self-funding, and federally-funded positions.

But is it enough?

Perkins, architect of the amendment, came out swinging. “I’m glad these chairs are lashed together,” he said, referring to the bindings between the metal chairs. “That way, no one can throw them at me.”

Perkins questioned the board’s determination to keep class sizes low, saying, “I don’t agree with the premise that says children can’t be educated in the same class size in which we were educated.”

He also took issue with a remark at the budget hearing two weeks ago when a community member said good schools keep property values up. Perkins said, “They also keep the taxes up.”

And he said he wasn’t against children. “I am here for the children,” he said. He said parents have told him that parenting is seven days a week, 365 days a year, and that high taxes keep them from providing other things for their kids. “They tell me, ‘I need money to see the smiles on their faces,’” he said.

Perkins also put in a word for the seniors in town. “You are putting a hardship on them, causing difficulties in their lives,” he said.

Perkins’ motion was to amend the working budget to $79,657,113, a cut of $520,000. It was seconded by Kevin Coyle and had 10 signatures from voters.

Resident Steve Barry took issue with Perkins’ statement about class sizes, saying, “I agree with you, if we’re preparing students for life in the 1970s.” But now, Barry said, teachers need to teach a great deal more to students, “to allow them to survive and succeed in a world of rapid change.

“The people coming out of the schools now are the ones who have to earn the salaries to support the Greatest Generation,” he added.

Barry said with larger classes, more effort will need to go into “classroom management,” with less teaching.

John Murphy said he disagreed with the amendment. He asked what would happen to the “extra” $900,000 in the default budget that is more than the working budget.

“It’s a bottom-line budget,” McKenna said. “We could choose not to spend it. It could be given back to reduce the tax rate.”

Resident Brian Lane reminded the group that many of the increases are contractual or federally mandated. Some come from Special Education, and, he said, “When I was in school there was no ‘special education.’” The special-needs children were shoved aside, Lane said, adding, “We have now created a society in which all children matter.”

Perkins’ cuts would mean the equivalent of 8 1/2 classroom teachers, Lane said.

Coyle requested a secret ballot and said he had the necessary five signatures. He asked if the working budget would raise taxes and Business Administrator Jane Simard said it would unless the Unexpended Fund Balance (UFB) was the same as last year. If the UFB is adequate the district can use that money to reduce taxes, but it would have to be $3.8 million to mitigate the budget impact.

“So we’re over-budget every year by $3 to $4 million?” Coyle asked.

Simard said it wasn’t over-budgeting so much as estimating. For example, she said, she doesn’t know until spring what the health insurance increase will be, but she needs to budget for it.

State Representative James Webb, R-Derry warned the crowd that state adequacy money can’t be depended on. “It’s going away,” he said. “We have good representation in Concord, but this is going to come back and bite us.”

Former State Senator Jim Rausch, R-Derry, who wrote the adequacy formula, said he supported Perkins’ amendment but the cuts didn’t go far enough. He said the district has gone from 5,343 to 5,225 students and is projected to serve 4,056 students in 2022-23. “You have to reflect these numbers,” he said.

Rausch added, “If I were a policeman, fireman or public works employee I would vote against this budget. Whatever you vote for, it’s on their backs.”

Rausch was referring to an initiative by the Town Council to cut $2 from the tax rate. An earlier scenario of a $2.50 cut would have resulted in cuts to police, fire and public works.

“You teachers are driving a car into a brick wall,” Rausch said.

But Melinda Davis pleaded for caution. “You have the Facilities Study,” she said. “Don’t make a quick decision.” With so many special education requirements from the government, cuts would hurt the regular education students, she said.

Margaret Ives questioned the rationale behind cutting the High School Coordinator position, noting that “having kids adjust successfully to Pinkerton is the key.”

McKenna said the position could be covered by internal rearranging.

Ives also asked if the district had any input into the Pinkerton budget, and McKenna said Pinkerton had its own budget process and board of trustees. “They set the budget and let us know what the increase is,” he said.

Janet Fairbanks referenced the Freshman Building and Freshman Academy program at Pinkerton and asked, “Didn’t we just spend $23 million to build the Freshman Building?”?   “Pinkerton built the building,” McKenna responded. “The taxpayers from the sending towns paid for it.”

Phil Brophy said his wife is a Realtor and often deals with young couples wanting to move from Massachusetts. “They say, ‘Derry is great but we can’t afford the taxes,’ and they go to Hampstead or Chester, where they can still have Pinkerton,” he said.

Brophy said he can’t sell or refinance his house. “You need to be fiscally responsible to all taxpayers,” he said.

Kristin Domingue said she is the mother of four children, one of whom uses a wheelchair and a walker. “He needs to move around, and you can’t do that without space,” she said. “With more students in a classroom, it will be impossible for him to get around.”

Secret ballot

The residents voted by secret ballot, with 79 in favor of the amendment, 195 opposed. It did not pass.

The voters then voted in the majority to move the question and the School Board’s amount of $80,177,113 was moved to the ballot.

Before adjournment, Board Chairman Neal Ochs took the microphone to recognize Jennifer Lague, who is not seeking reelection to the School Board, and Konstant, who is not seeking reelection as moderator.

Last year’s approved budget was $80,539,345.