Editorial: Getting a handle on challenges facing ConVal

For those fortunate enough to have found a seat in a packed gymnasium at Peterborough Elementary School for the school district budget hearing earlier this month, it was probably hard to put a dollar figure on the arts enrichment program that has in many ways come to symbolize the hand-wringing surrounding the ConVal budget.

Even the program’s most ardent critics certainly see the benefits ­that unite students, parents and the community in watching a performance led by the New Hampshire Dance Institute. They just don’t think NHDI and the arts enrichment program are necessarily worth taxpayer money, especially considering the budget is growing at the precise time that enrollment is dropping. That’s the case being made from all angles of the ConVal budget. There’s a growing chorus of residents and even town officials who are saying that school district spending is out of control, and that drastic cuts are necessary. If the budget is voted down, or amended significantly at the Feb. 6 deliberative session, administration and teaching positions are likely to be cut. And so might some of the programs and positions — current and proposed — that many see as vital to the district.

The School Board ultimately backed off its decision to leave approximately $77,000 of funding for arts enrichment out of the proposed ConVal budget, and many took this as a sign that the board is unwilling to make even this small of a sacrifice for taxpayers. Others saw it as the board acquiescing to a small but vocal group of artists and parents. The board itself was almost evenly divided on this one program, which would represent minimal savings for the district.

Such is life within the ConVal District these days, when every dollar is counted, every expense scrutinized and where lines in the sand are getting deeper by the week.

And, boy, do we have differences over the future of the ConVal School District. Yes, these include a School Board-backed article that would give the board authority to close elementary schools and two petition articles, one that would close Great Brook School and one that would add a school resource officer at the high school.

But those who want a smaller budget are targeting the Feb. 6 deliberative session as the day they make their stand.

Critics of the proposed budget aren’t hard to find these days. And their argument resonates: fewer kids should equate to a smaller district. But there’s another side to that story, one that has much to do with more mandated costs and less state support. ConVal School Board representative Matt Craig writes today that the increase in the proposed budget has a lot to do with downshifting costs from the state level to our local school districts. Others disagree, contending that the real culprit of the ballooning budget is the district’s reticence to cut teachers and especially administrators, or to look at things like health insurance or the food services program.

The Feb. 6 deliberative session is shaping up to be a defining meeting for the district. It’s likely that the best hope for critics to cut the budget is at that meeting rather than during the district-wide vote on March 12.

To that end, on Tuesday we’ll be laying out what’s at stake with this ConVal budget. We’ll tell you why the School Board is pushing for a larger plan. We’ll answer what critics see as the solution, and we’ll work to give you a better sense of how a larger or smaller budget will impact the district going forward.

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