District still in need of a long-term plan

Not many voters turned out for the ConVal School District’s deliberative session last week, but those who did rejected — by a substantial margin — an attempt to cut back the proposed budget for next year. While the final decision on the $45.8 million gross budget is still to be made at the polls in March, voters seem willing to endorse the efforts of the ConVal administration and School Board, who came in with a budget proposal that’s less than 1 percent higher than the previous year.

The budget shows a reduction of six jobs — two teachers, two paraprofessionals, the technology director administrative position and an administrative assistant at the SAU office. Health benefit costs are down by nearly $200,000, partly due to reduction in premiums and partly because employees are now paying 9 percent of the cost of premiums. Supplies and materials are also down $200,000, because district administrators project reductions in utilities and fuel costs and plan no new curriculum adoptions while transitioning to meet the Common Core standards.

The budget does call for an additional $287,000 for equipment and furniture. That includes $214,000 to buy additional iPad and Chromebook computers for the two middle schools and the high school. These are wise investments, not only to keep students current but also to ensure that kids at both middle schools have equal opportunities to use the latest technology.

Revenues are down, with state adequacy aid, which is partly based on enrollment, expected to drop by $195,000. So the district assessment — the amount taxpayers will have to pay — will go up by $1 million if the budget is approved. And there’s no guarantee that cost savings throughout the year will result in a fund balance that could be used to reduce that assessment.

Still, it’s a well-thought-out budget proposal. The district’s new superintendent, Brendan Minnihan, and his staff clearly made a conscientious effort to keep costs under control. The budget deserves your support.

That said, ConVal also needs to refocus its effort to address concerns about declining enrollment. In the past decade, the number of ConVal students has fallen by 25 percent, from 3,033 in 2001-2002 to 2,272 in 2012-2013, according to the N.H. Department of Education. While projections are unpredictable and some see the decline leveling off in the future, this trend can’t be ignored.

Last year, voters turned down a School Board recommendation to revamp the district’s Articles of Agreement to give the board more flexibility to close a school. They also rejected a petition article to consolidate the two middle schools at one location in Peterborough.

This year, the School Board formed an ad-hoc District Study Committee, made up of both School Board and Select Board members from the nine towns, to look at the district structure. Rich Cahoon, the School Board member from Antrim who chairs the committee, said last week that the committee members have concluded there’s not a lot of support for school consolidation. We disagree — 58 percent of district voters supported last year’s plan to grant the School Board authority to implement a 10-step procedure to study closing a school if it was operating well below capacity. That measure needed two-thirds to pass, but it certainly doesn’t mean voters have clearly stated that consolidation should be off the table.

Cahoon said the District Study Committee plans to recommend that the committee stay in operation, with a focus on reviewing the Articles of Agreement, a project that was scheduled for this year but didn’t happen.

Attendance by Select Board members of the District Study Committee has been sporadic and the group has struggled to find a focus. But we hope it will remain in operation and even expand its membership. If consolidation isn’t the answer, are there other alternatives to help bring costs down? Now’s the time for those in the community who are worried about dropping enrollment and rising costs to step forward, and work to come up with creative alternatives that will pass muster with voters.

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