School Budget Adds Teacher, Cuts Data Coach

An amended budget to be passed on to Derry voters will include one more teaching position for East Derry Memorial School, but will remove a proposed “data coach” for the district.

The board was responding to a request by two East Derry parents to add two teaching positions to the school, which has seen an increase in population. While the board was cautious about adding both positions, it voted to add one, and its bottom-line budget is now $81,787,588.

Budget overview

School District Business Manager Jane Simard presented the overview at the Jan. 12 budget hearing.

Simard originally presented a working budget of $81,832,588 for 2016-17. The budget was $1,655,475 more than the 2015-16 approved budget. However, Simard said, it was $137,904 less than the default budget, which will go into effect if the working budget is rejected by voters. The default budget is $81,970,492 and is based on Federal mandates and contracted obligations.

If approved, the working budget will add 67 cents per $1,000 to the tax bill on an average home, Simard said.

Simard said salaries and benefits make up the biggest share of the budget.

She said the budget was also driven by the average class sizes, as suggested by the Department of Education and board policy.

She reviewed the cost per pupil, which is slightly lower than the state average for elementary students and slightly higher than the state average for middle-school students. For elementary, the state average is $14,581 per year, for Derry $14,441; and for middle school the state average is $13,698, for Derry $13,788.

Staff adjustments in the proposed budget include:

• East Derry Memorial Elementary School, add one first-grade teacher, remove one fifth-grade teacher;

• South Range Elementary, add one first-grade teacher, remove two second-grade teachers;

• Ernest P. Barka Elementary, remove one first-grade and one second-grade position;

• Grinnell Elementary, add one second-grade position and one fifth-grade, remove one fourth-grade;

• Derry Village Elementary and West Running Brook middle schools, no changes; and

• Gilbert H. Hood, reduce two sections of sixth grade English Language Arts due to a projected lower sixth-grade enrollment.

The budget also calls for eliminating two paraprofessional positions from East Derry, one tech ed position from the middle schools and one in-school suspension position.

The only new position is the data coach, at $115,000, Simard said.

Simard addressed the issue of declining enrollment with a graph showing that since 2005-06 the district has lost 540 students and reduced 97 positions.

Other drivers of this budget include health insurance, which is available to more part-time employees under the Affordable Care Act. Simard said Human Resources Director Kathy Kennedy is “trying to mitigate that.” The district must also deal with paying its portion of New Hampshire Retirement, she said.

The district is looking to add one more classroom to the NECC (New England Center for Children) program for children on the autism spectrum, with the goal of keeping them in the district and saving money. Simard said a large number of children on the spectrum are entering the program from the DEEP – Derry Early Education Preschool program.

Simard said the budget is also affected by reductions in state aid, including $671,529 less in “adequacy” and $332,942 less in state education aid. Catastrophic aid is also down by $829,371.

Citizen input

In the public hearing on the budget, resident Marc Flattes presented a citizen petition to reduce the operating budget by $715,000. “I am really concerned about the tax rate impact of this budget,” Flattes said.

He asked Simard the total impact if all the warrant articles passed, and Simard said it would be $2.05 per thousand.

Resident Lynn Perkins objected to a chart ranking Derry’s class sizes with those of comparable communities. “They all have a commercial base,” Perkins said. “We don’t have, which is why our taxes are where they’re at.”

The fate was set years ago, under previous Town Councils and their decisions, Perkins said, adding, “We just don’t have the land mass for more commercial development.”

Perkins, who attended the budget meetings in the fall, commended the Fiscal Advisors and board for their work. “You could see the pain,” he said. “They worked in good faith and put a budget on the table.”

But he was critical of the board the next night, when it voted to present a warrant article on full-day kindergarten. “That shows how out of touch you are,” he said. “You missed a bull’s-eye. You do not understand the hardships of this community.

“You have room in this budget to do other proactive things,” Perkins concluded.

Fiscal Adviser Melinda Davis told Flattes, “This process is difficult. If you’re suggesting decreases, help us understand where you think we should make them. Throwing out a number is difficult because you don’t know how it will impact kids.”

Longtime resident Ben Taylor said, “Our children do need a good education.” But he was critical of the process that balances budgets on homeowners’ and business owners’ backs. Taylor said he would like to see more parity, with apartment-dwellers perhaps paying a portion of their children’s education.

Taylor also warned against people claiming residence in Derry so their teens can attend Pinkerton Academy. A member of his own family came to him to ask if a high-schooler could claim residency with Taylor in order to attend the highly-rated semi-private  high school. Derry tuitions its high school students to Pinkerton.

“I said no,” Taylor said.

Resident and former State Representative Frank Sapareto said the town needs to look for sources of revenue to defray its education costs. He was critical of the fact that Derry pays 100 percent of the police, fire and ambulance costs for Pinkerton, and suggested the high school or sending towns pay a share.

He asked the board and administration to take action in this direction. But Superintendent Laura Nelson said it was not within their purview. Also, she said, “If that happened, Pinkerton might pass it back to us in tuition.”

Adding teachers

Two mothers from East Derry took the microphones to ask that $140,000 be added to the budget to fund two teachers for East Derry Memorial Elementary School, one for first grade and one for fourth grade. Erika Cohen said the current third grade is three to four students above the board’s recommended number. While other schools are declining in population, East Derry is increasing, she said, pointing to a school enrollment of 381 in August 2014, 396 in August 2015, and 407 in January 2016.

She and fellow mom Sheri Gayer had done the math and said $140,000 would add $15.75 per year on the average Derry home tax bill.

Gayer said she understands having a class size policy. “What I don’t understand is, a year later, disregarding it,” she told the board. “East Derry will continue to grow. Why put a Band-Aid on it?”

Cohen said, “We don’t deny that the class averages in Derry are low. But East Derry is higher. The third grade has 26, 27 and 27 students in the three classes.”

McKenna said there are several options for adding the teachers. “You can make a motion at deliberative session and we can raise or lower the budget,” he told the women.

But the board also discussed it in its own deliberations, and agreed to add one of the positions back in.

Board debate

The board’s deliberations centered on the proposal by the two parents, with Brenda Willis saying, “The class sizes are high and they should not be. I would be happy to add the teachers back in, and swap out the data coach.”

Willis observed that a predicted “build-out” in East Derry is happening now due to the improving economy.

“The build-out is coming,” member Mark Beland agreed. Of last year’s building permits, 75 percent were single-family homes in East Derry, he said.

Nelson warned that this budget has “a very small margin of error. There will be no room to add teachers in July or August, after the budget has been approved.”

And, she said, “Adding one now will be at the expense of something else.”

The two teaching positions would add $140,000 to the bottom line, But if the $115,000 for the data coach were removed, it would result in a net increase of $25,000, she said.

Nelson reviewed the value of a data coach, saying, “The School Board requires detailed reports. If we’re not going to use data, we need to set soft goals. If we do use data, we need the resources to compile it.”

“There is a lot of data,” Willis agreed, adding, “But teachers are more important.”

“We need to use the money to teach our kids,” member Jeri Murphy said.

McKenna warned, “It’s easy to look at the East Derry numbers and say, ‘Oh, we want to change this.’ But we’ve also seen a decline in their first grade, which will be next year’s second grade.”

“We just went through a long, thorough budget process,” McKenna added. “Looking at just one school is not good at this point.”

Willis said the school still needed one more teacher for fourth grade, with next year’s numbers projected at 26, 27 and 27. “I can live without the data coach and I can live with adding one more teacher,” Willis said. But she warned that, “After the March 11 vote, I hope we do not need one more teacher.”

The board voted 5-1 to remove the data coach and add one teaching position. McKenna was the dissenting vote.

With the data coach out and one teacher position added, the new bottom line is $81,787,588 and the board voted unanimously to support it.

McKenna said he was not supportive of Flattes’ petition, noting there is no place in the budget to cut $700,000.

Barring legal issues, the petition will go on the warrant as a petitioned warrant article with the correct amount of signatures.

The public has another chance to weigh in at the School District Deliberative Session Saturday, Jan. 30, beginning at 10 am. at West Running Brook Middle School.