Residents Ask School Board to Make More Budget Cuts

While the Derry Cooperative School District is proposing a budget lower than both last year’s approved budget and its default budget, residents at the Jan. 21 public hearing implored them to cut even more, including the possibility of closing a school.

The working budget for 2014-15 is $80,817,146.18, including Food Service and federal funds, which are self-funded. The budget is $1,086,544.36, or 1.33 percent less than the current budget, and $333,645.99 less than the default budget. It would be a 9 cent increase on the tax rate if passed.

The hearing was well-attended and included many town, board and committee officials, who were able to attend because of the Town Council’s rescheduling its Jan. 21 meeting to the next night.

The Fiscal Advisory Committee was also in attendance. Craig Bulkley explained the role of the committee, saying it is an independent, volunteer and non-voting group that meets with the School Board and advises it on crafting a budget.

“We are not a rubber stamp, and we often challenge the norm,” Bulkley said.

Bulkley added, “We recognize the importance of a quality education, and we balance that with our responsibility to the taxpayers.”

Superintendent Laura Nelson introduced Business Manager Jane Simard, who presented key aspects of the budget in a PowerPoint show.

Simard said every decision regarding the 2014-15 budget was made with the district Strategic Plan in mind: to have all children learning at a high level, to have a safe, positive school environment that promotes learning and well-being, and to increase community involvement.

She said salaries and benefits account for 52 percent of the budget. Teacher raises are dictated by contract and the teachers are in the second year of a three-year contract, she said. Educational assistants are to receive a 15 cent per hour raise by contract. The rest of the employees are non-union and will receive their raises through a wage pool that covers custodians, secretaries and administrators, she said.

The District is proposing to add four positions, Simard said. They are a reading specialist for regular education at Grinnell Elementary School; a middle-school library assistant, making one each for the district’s two middle schools; an assistant Student Services director, a position that was eliminated last year; and an additional fifth-grade teacher at Grinnell. The fifth-grade teacher was added last fall due to a surge in enrollment in late August, but was only funded for one year. Without the added position, Nelson said, one fifth-grade class would have had 30 students, the other 31.

The district is also proposing eliminating several positions due to declining enrollment, Simard said. These include a fifth-grade teacher at South Range Elementary School, one fourth-grade and one fifth-grade teacher at Derry Village Elementary School; one third-grade teacher and one special education teacher at East Derry Memorial Elementary School; one special education teacher at West Running Brook Middle School; and district-wide, reduction of two special education assistants and reduction of the hours of an elementary band teacher.

State retirement is holding steady at 10.77 percent for staff and 14.16 percent for teachers, Simard said, although she expects the district’s portion to increase next year. Health insurance is a guaranteed maximum of 2 percent and dental saw a zero percent increase.

While Pinkerton tuition went up by $504.34 per student, the school’s total enrollment is down by 99 students and that tuition line is decreasing by $40,097, Simard said. Pinkerton Special Education has decreased by $359,000. Pinkerton is 34 percent of the district budget, Simard said.

The district’s bus contract has two more years. For this budget they’ve eliminated one regular education bus, a savings of $29,509. Special Education transportation has increased by $84,000, but “based on enrollment, it could go down,” Simard said.

And the district will see a $495,018 savings after it pays the final bond on West Running Brook, Simard said.

Chairman Brenda Willis asked for public comment, and the public asked the district to further sharpen its red pencils.

Resident Kevin Coyle said, “Declining enrollment has been a significant trend. We have 22 percent fewer students than in 2002. But you haven’t eliminated 22 percent of your staff since 2002.”

Coyle urged consideration of closing a school.

State Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, had a figure of a 20 percent drop in enrollment, but the same request. “This is a precipitous decline,” he said. Since 2002 the district has lost 1,396 students and $476,672 in state “adequate education” funds, he said.

Rausch also criticized the district for making up the difference between the adequacy grant and Pinkerton tuition in order to support its Next Charter School, noting that other charter schools don’t do this. “They fund raise,” he said.

Resident Lynn Perkins listed savings in the district of the bond ending, the district not budgeting for an Affordable Health Care penalty, and a possible refund from the Local Government Center. Those could total $1 1/2 million, he said, and should be used to reduce taxes.

Nelson said the savings from the healthcare penalty will go back into the unexpended funds balance to be used for taxes, part of the Local Government Center refund was used to offset taxes for 2013, and another portion will be used to offset this year’s taxes. “We have worked to put the money back where it needs to be,” she said.

Nelson said the district is looking at demographics as part of its strategic plan. Last year it focused on the middle schools, she said, and cut 14 positions. This year they looked at the elementary schools. And they haven’t ruled out a school closing, she said.

“We get it,” she said. “We are working to move forward. But it won’t be accomplished overnight.”

Voters have another chance to weigh in on the budget at the School District Meeting Saturday, Feb. 8, beginning at 10 a.m. at West Running Brook Middle School.