School Board OKs Budget Under Last Year’s Amount

The Derry School Board has approved a working budget about which both members and the public expressed reservations.

The board presented its budget in a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 13, in the West Running Brook Middle School cafeteria. The room was filled with a crowd of parents, town and state-level officials, and teachers.

Business Administrator Jane Simard reviewed the process for coming up with a budget, including meeting with department heads and principals last August. The School Board and Fiscal Advisory Committee then met throughout the fall to hammer out a budget. Simard said the budget was planned to meet the district’s three goals: grades Kindergarten-Grade 12 learning at a high level, providing a safe and positive school environment, and increasing community involvement.

Current items under those goals include reviewing communication “protocols” to see how they can do better, revising curriculum, reviewing options for housing the Next Charter School, and determining what to do next regarding facilities and a lowered enrollment. The Facilities Planning Committee will begin meeting this winter, she said.

The board and financial advisory committee came up with a proposed working budget of $80,177,113 for 2015-16, which is $362,000 less than the 2014-15 number of $80,539,395 and $934,000 less than the default budget, she said.

Simard said in crafting the budget, the board and Advisory Committee looked at reduction of classroom teachers in light of a smaller school population. They discussed several options, eventually rejecting the following:

• Option One, cutting 13 elementary classrooms for a savings of $910,000;

• Option Two, cutting eight elementary classrooms for a savings of $560,000; and

• Option One for middle school, cutting six English/Language Arts teachers, a music teacher and a computer teacher for a savings of $560,000.

The board and advisory committee went with Option Two for middle school, cutting the music and computer teachers, but leaving the English/Language Arts positions in place for a savings of $140,000. They went with so-called Options Three and Four for elementary, eliminating two K-2 classrooms for a savings of $140,000 and two grade 3-5 classrooms for a savings of $210,000.

Simard said the approved options are in line with the state standard of “striving to achieve” 20 students or fewer in K-2 grades and 25 or fewer in grades 3-5.  The middle school option meets the “strive to achieve” standard of 30 or fewer students per educator, she said.

Other staff reductions proposed are one social worker/guidance counselor, a part-time band position, a part-time physical education position, a part-time art position, an in-school suspension teacher and a Math Strategies teacher at the middle school level, and the district’s High School Coordinator.

The total savings in personnel would be $880,000, Simard said.

Board Chairman Neal Ochs opened the meeting to public comment.

Community member Lynn Perkins commended the board and advisory committee for “an impressive amount of work” but added that he thinks the result could have been lower. He said the final objective was not presented until late in the budget season and the public was not able to give input, especially during the two budget meetings held in the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School gym.

Ochs reminded Perkins that he had said Perkins could have e-mailed him at any time with input and questions.

Perkins also said of the long-awaited Facilities Report, “It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.”

Board members pointed out that the working budget they were presenting that night was $300,000 less than last year’s approved number, to which Perkins responded, “But it wasn’t at the outset.”

Perkins also criticized former chairman Brenda Willis for stating that she was “pleased” to keep class size down. “That’s what’s wrong with this budget,” he said.

But parent Heather Evans argued for the smaller class sizes. “This hits me on a personal level,” she said. “If they get individual attention, any issues they have will be caught sooner, and if they do well they’ll be recognized for it.”

Parent Sherry Guyer has a second-grader and said going from 17 in a class to 25 next year would be a “huge jump.”

Parent Daniel Branch also said he chose his home because of the small class sizes in his neighborhood school. The town has two choices, Branch said: “cut till it hurts” or make the town so attractive people will want to move here.

“If you cut teachers, police and firefighters, people will think twice about coming here,” he predicted.

Town Councilor Thomas Cardon, who is also a state representative, said he agreed with Perkins that “the cuts didn’t go far enough.” He said he’s been looking at the capacity of the five schools and four of the five elementary schools were at 65 percent capacity.

“You do need to close a school,” he told the board, “and I’d like to see it earlier rather than later.” But Cardon added, “I know it’s a process. You can’t just lock the door in June.”

When Cardon ran for state rep he knocked on 500 doors, he said, and the overwhelming theme of the residents was taxes. “Not a day went by that I didn’t hear, ‘We are being forced out of our houses,’” he said.

Resident Mark Connors cautioned the board against any rash decisions and too-deep cuts. He’s also critical of the Town Council for its proposed cut of $2 per $1,000, he said.

“We are getting to critical mass here,” Connors said. “You’ve got good folks on staff. You need to listen to the professionals.”

Longtime resident Nicole Ferrante quizzed Superintendent Laura Nelson on the student/teacher ratio. “Is the state saying we can’t go above that number?” Ferrante asked.

Basically yes, Nelson replied. “If we do, the state would impose sanctions,” she said.

Ferrante said she “wavered” over supporting this budget. “I don’t want drastic cuts,” she said. “But the town portion of the tax rate is $9.72, the state education is $2.44, the county is $1.15, and the school is $16.11.

“I hope the collaboration between school and town continues,” Ferrante said, noting, “At the end of the day it’s our students, our services, our rec department.”

After closing the public hearing, the board continued to wrestle with the budget. Willis said she “had a problem” with 26 students in a classroom, noting, “We took a stand to have lower class sizes.”

Vice-chair Ken Linehan, who made the motion to accept the number, said he was comfortable with it. “We are as fiscally responsible as we can be,” he said. “This is a balance between being fiscally conservative and keeping an eye on what the future holds.”

Quizzed by member Jeri Murphy on her position, Nelson said she was concerned about move-ins. If there’s a large influx of students, there is no contingency fund, she said.

The board agreed they could take funds from the Unexpended Fund Balance and hire a teacher, but that would mean less going to reduce taxes.

Willis wasn’t comfortable with that either, noting that the board added a fifth-grade classroom to Grinnell Elementary School last year. While it worked, it wasn’t ideal, she said, adding, “It’s not good to have children change classrooms in October.”

Member Jen Lague said she wasn’t comfortable with 26 students in a fourth-grade classroom, “and that’s where I draw the line. I know it’s a bottom-line budget and we can move things around, but I’m still not comfortable.”

The board vote on the budget saw Murphy, Dan McKenna, Wendy Smith, Linehan and Ochs in favor and Lague and Willis opposed. It passed, 5-2, and will next be discussed in the Deliberative Session Saturday, Jan. 31, at 10 a.m. at West Running Brook.