The Derry Cooperative School District budget and warrant articles will go to voters on March 8 essentially unchanged after several challenges during a three-hour School District Meeting Saturday at West Running Brook Middle School.
Most of the controversy centered around the proposed FY 16-17 budget of $81,787,588, an increase of $1,655,475 over last year’s budget. The working budget is $182,904 under the default budget of $81,970,492, which will go into effect if voters reject the proposed operating budget.
The voters left the budget and two contracts alone, but voted in the majority to reduce a petitioned warrant article asking for cuts to zero.
Gilbert H. Hood Middle School Student Council President Emily Mountain led the Pledge of Allegiance, and the school’s Select Choir presented the National Anthem under the direction of Kate Boisvert.
The petitioned article that was zeroed out was submitted by Marc Flattes and proposed a cut of $715,000 to the operating budget, reducing the increase from $1,655,475 to $940,475. Prior to the meeting, Flattes said he did not have specific areas for the cuts. “That’s their job,” Flattes said of the board and administration. “I’m confident they can lead us to the savings.”
The item was placed second on the warrant, after the candidates for office and before the operating budget, and Flattes asked that his article be placed after the operating budget. “The school budget should be voted on first,” Flattes told Moderator Kevin Gordon.
Chris Houle, a resident and former moderator, argued that the order was correct. Houle and Mark Grabowski presented amendments reducing the cuts to zero, with Grabowski withdrawing his motion because the amendments essentially said the same thing. Gordon said the order of the warrant would stand.
Resident Lynn Perkins argued for the cuts. “Some challenges are coming toward the district soon,” he said. He referred to the people’s voice in the special election Oct. 13, reversing eight Town Council budget cuts, in which 6,000 voters turned out.
“You can’t possibly fit 6,000 voters in this room,” Perkins said. “You owe every resident the opportunity to vote on this.” The district has 19,000 registered voters, Perkins said, and to deny them the opportunity to vote on the cuts is “hypocritical,” he said.
“I would like to see this go on the March ballot and let the residents decide,” Flattes said.
Grabowski countered, “With no specific plan for any of the cuts, that would be irresponsible.”
“I have reviewed the documents and I believe the money is there,” Flattes said.
On petition of five registered voters, Houle’s amendment went to the first secret ballot of the day. The vote was 183 in favor of the amendment, 90 not in favor and one blank.
Flattes’ warrant article will go to the voters in March listing zero cuts.
Houle asked for restriction on reconsideration of the motion and his motion carried by a show of voting cards. Flattes asked for a reconsideration of the motion to restrict, but Gordon said, “It will stand this way.”
Board chairman Dan McKenna spoke to the proposed operating budget, Warrant Article 3, with its $1.6 million increase over the current budget. In a PowerPoint, McKenna explained a pie chart on district expenses. Salaries and benefits are the biggest piece of the pie, at 33 percent; tuition to Pinkerton Academy second, at 32 percent; and benefits third, at 18 percent.
McKenna said the biggest part of the increase over 2015-16 is high school tuition, at $1 million or $513.03 per student, 4.7 percent. The amount of tuition Derry pays to Next Charter School is the same as its Pinkerton tuition, he said. Derry tuitions its high school students to the semi-private Pinkerton.
Special Education costs are up because of the proposed addition of a classroom to the New England Center For Children (NECC), an autism spectrum program that serves elementary and middle-school students. The cost for adding a classroom is $241,033.74, McKenna said, but it is necessary to keep rising preschoolers and kindergarteners in the district. The children benefit by staying in town, he said, and there is a cost savings to the taxpayer. It would cost $114,000 for each student to be sent out of district, McKenna said.
Another increase is attributed to a new math program for K-5, at $286,250 over three years. The first payment is $95,383, McKenna said, and will give the district more consistency, over five schools, in elementary math and better prepare students for middle school.
Employee benefits are another driver of the budget, with a $96,000 increase due in part to a 5.6 percent increase in health insurance and more downshifting of retirement costs from the state. The line item also includes a 5.3 percent raise for non-union employees, according to McKenna.
Savings include changing the model of Technology Education from “shop class” to computer-based, requiring fewer personnel, and a change in the makeup of Hood’s English Language Arts model, downsizing by two teachers.
This if approved would be a 1.6 percent increase over last year’s budget, McKenna said.
Marian Schnitzlein asked to amend the budget to $80,177,113, or level-funding of last year’s budget.
Resident Mark Connors objected. “We just had a motion to reduce the budget, and it failed 2-1,” he said. “Nobody’s going to change their minds.”
The residents who want to reduce taxes are “going about it in the wrong way,” Connors added, saying, “There’s a vote in March and four School Board seats are open.”
Once again there was a petition for a secret ballot. The result of the secret ballot was 89 yes, 161 no, and the amendment failed.
Jim Morgan made a motion to restrict reconsideration on the amendment, and it passed. Without further discussion, the budget will go to the March voters as written.
Other warrant articles
The fourth article on the warrant is a 10-year lease for Next Charter School, allowing it to continue to rent current space in the former Tech Ed rooms at Gilbert H. Hood. McKenna reminded the audience that “A few years ago, the School Board asked for support in applying to the state (Department of Education) for a charter school, which was approved.” McKenna explained that at the time, the district was seeing a pool of students who were not succeeding at Pinkerton Academy for various reasons. After trying different things the district “ending up creating Next for our students who are underserved.”
The School Board can only enter into a one-year lease, McKenna said; anything more has to be approved by the voting body.
“It has been a successful partnership and we are looking for a long-term lease,” he said.
The lease would allow Next to rent its 6,000 square feet for 10 years, for a total of $237,000 over the life of the lease. The first payment, due this year, is $20,000.
McKenna emphasized that the district is not in the real estate business. “We do not just lease out space to the highest bidder,” he said. But continuing the relationship with Next will benefit Derry students, who are the “lion’s share” of the school’s demographics.
Flattes challenged the article, saying the dollar amounts of the lease were not specified. “We need to see the dollar amount as well as the terms,” he said.
McKenna said the complete lease is on the district Web site at http://www.sau10.org and Atty. Michael Elwell said the article was adequately written. The article remained on the warrant.
The contract would represent 1 cent of revenue on the tax rate.
Two contracts will also be offered to March voters for approval: one for the teachers in the Derry Education Association at $403,888 for one year; and one for the paraprofessionals for two years, with $69,771 in the first year and $75,572 in the second. They would be respectively 17 cents and 3 cents on the tax rate.
Turning a page
The board recognized departing members Ken Linehan, Jeri Murphy and Mark Beland. They also honored retiring School District Clerk Cecile Cormier. In addition, they held a brief ceremony honoring late Chairman Neal Ochs, to whom the annual report is dedicated.