The Derry School Board and Fiscal Advisory Committee discussed both working numbers and the bigger picture of education funding in their joint meeting this past Monday.
The board and Advisory Committee are charged with crafting a 2015-16 budget that keeps school expenses down in the face of rising personnel and benefit costs and an increasing need for Special Education services, many of which are mandated by the government.
The 2015 working budget of $79,027,113 is $987,217 more than this year’s $78,039,895, despite reductions in several line items. Faced with an “adequate education” loss of $463,000 due to declining enrollment, the administration is looking at several scenarios to reduce costs.
Business Administrator Jane Simard presented a fact sheet of a budget with $500,000 removed, $1 million removed, $1.5 million removed and $2 million removed. But board and committee members pointed to a systemic problem and wondered when change would come.
Member Craig Bulkley speculated that without Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, in the State House, there was no one to push for Derry. Rausch retired from his post.
“Without Sen. Rausch to advocate for us, it’s when our funding will go down, not if,” he predicted.
But board member Brenda Willis wasn’t so sure, noting that Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, the new Senator for Dist. 19, had told her repeatedly that she was in the Senate for all three of her towns. “She has said from the beginning that she would work with all of us,” Willis said.
Bulkley expressed concern about the new conservative Republican legislature and said there were going to be budget battles.
When the other members tossed around ideas of where and what to cut, member Walter Deyo expressed frustration. “You say, ‘cut this,’ ‘cut that,’” he said. “Why not just take that figure and use it as your budget? Cut the $2 million and go from there.”
Deyo said community members were upset about high taxes and that many of them blamed school spending.
But Willis countered, “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping expenses in line.” She pointed to cost-savings such as reducing the number of special education students who go out of district for their schooling.
“The total amount we have to pay for taxes is still too high,” Deyo insisted.
Board chairman Neal Ochs said the differential between business and residential taxes and the resulting high tax rate was the town’s problem. “They have made a lot of mistakes in their efforts to attract business,” he said. “We have done a good job of holding things accountable. We control our budget. We don’t generate revenue, the town does.”
Community member Lynn Perkins asked if there were ways the School District could produce more revenue, and Simard said renting out space for events and meetings was the main source of revenue.
Bulkley urged the board to increase its communication with the public before the Deliberative Session in 2015. “If people are better informed, they won’t come ‘loaded for bear,’” he said.
Superintendent Laura Nelson, a native of Kentucky, provided a different perspective, reminding the group that New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” policy extends to its school philosophy and funding. “I stay here because I like the idea of ‘local control,’” she said, noting that in Kentucky, the curriculum and teacher salaries were the same across the state.
“Local control is good,” Nelson said, adding, “We just need to make it work for us.”