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Teachers union to forgo $225K in raises, benefits

Jaffrey-Rindge School District: Officials look to cut $477,479 from the 2014-2015 school year, after voters defeat $26,019,402 budget proposal

JAFFREY — After voters turned down the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School Board’s proposed budget last week, leaving a $477,479 gap in funding, district officials are scrambling to set a new budget for a March 31 deadline.

At Monday’s School Board meeting, the board and administrators discussed which programs, expenses or positions could be cut in an effort to balance the budget. In attendance, were concerned teachers and staff.

Since the proposed budget of $26,019,402 was turned down , resulting in the default budget of $25,541,923, the board must submit a new budget plan to the N.H. commissioner of revenue administration within 20 days of voting at the polls, which took place on March 11. .

Jaffrey voters were in support of the proposed budget, but Rindge’s were was not. Jaffrey voted 347 in favor and 228 opposed, while Rindge had 604 in favor and 825 opposed.

Voters also turned down a proposed teacher’s contract last week. In a statement delivered to the School Board at the meeting Monday, the district’s teachers union announced it would not be pursuing further negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement, which was voted down at the polls, saying they were disheartened by the rejection of voters. Having a second vote to address a renegotiated contract was an option that voters did approve, but the union is choosing not to go that route. If approved, it would have meant $225,317 in raises and benefits across the board for teachers.

“We believe that the proposed agreement and increased cost overall was the minimum reasonable,” said Patricia McCarthy, vice president of the Jaffrey-Rindge Education Association, at the meeting, reading from a statement issued by the union. “We do not feel that a return to negotiations would result in a fair agreement, and believe there is little merit in doing so.”

McCarthy said the average Jaffrey-Rindge teacher salary last year was $6,500 below the New Hampshire average and was one of the lowest in the Monadnock region.

Tough decisions

The meeting opened with a motion from the board to re-elect Dan Whitney as the chair, which passed with six yes votes and a single abstention. In his first official words of the evening, Whitney issued a plea for mutual respect and understanding throughout the discussion and continued budget process.

“Please let’s just try and do this as respectfully for all participants, no matter what their opinions might be, no matter if you agree with them, or I agree with them, or the rest of us do,” said Whitney. “We all understand how important all of this is. We are talking about peoples’ lives and livelihoods. We are also talking about mandates that we have from our constituents as well.”

Whitney told members of the board and attendants that no one is sure exactly what will happen during the process and that budget cuts will mean tough choices for everyone.

“This is going to be hard work,” he said. “It’s necessary.”

He added that the first step could be to use funds from the current school year’s budget. Money that’s still unspent could go toward early purchases and expenditures planned for next the school year’s budget, which he said should lessen the impact of whatever else they have to do.

Whitney said that once leftover money from the 2013-14 budget is allocated, district officials will have a better sense of what programs, expenditures or positions will need to be cut. Once that’s done, he said, “We’ll have a good organic discussion regarding our options and have a better idea of our direction.”

They have until June 30 to use the money from the 2013-14 budget.

Program cuts

During discussion of the default budget, board member Charlie Eicher of Rindge clarified that the wages and benefits funding in the default budget would still be enough to support all except for one-and-a-half of the teachers in the district.

Whitney was surprised and said he had read the numbers differently, but was glad since it would mean significantly less in staff cuts than his initial estimate.

Board member Jim Weimann suggested a number of program cuts that could be made.

“We as a board have never been put in this position before, however tough times do require us to make tough decisions,” said Weimann. “Therefore, I’m recommending that we eliminate some of these programs based on the amount of money it costs to fund them.”

Weimann named the following programs and the attributed costs in the following order: The Quest Program, a summer camp program run in collaboration with Franklin Pierce University and the Rotary Club, at $31,717; the PEP program for elementary school students who educators believe would gain additional advantages by participating in a summer academic curriculum, at $47,825; the Gifted and Talented program for high-achieving students, at $80,306; and the Jump Program for at risk students, at $70,606.

Weimann asked the Assistant Superintendent and Director of Student Services David Beauchamp to explain the Jump Program.

Beauchamp said the program exists to address the needs of middle school students identified as “at risk.” He said the program is for 25 to 30 students every year — students who need adult anchoring, feedback, monitoring or behavioral plans. It serves both special education and regular education students.

“We think that prevention is more cost-effective than crisis intervention,” said Beauchamp. “We try to work with at-risk kids so they can maintain their involvement.”

Weimann also suggested dispersing the responsibilities of the director of curriculum position between other administrators, and ultimately eliminating the position altogether.

“I think it’s an excellent program and I think it well serves the different departments,” said Weimann. “But that is a salary position of $90,724 and I’d like to suggest that we split that between another position or another department.”

The position’s total cost is closer to $120,000, if wages and the benefits package are added together.

When the total dollar amounts of the those programs and the curriculum position were tabulated, the board determined that eliminating those programs would cut the budget by approximately $294,000. No decision was made.

Whitney made a clarification that the program savings figure generated by the board’s proposed program cuts still under discussion, does not include their consideration of athletic programs, pay-to-play sports revenue or transportation costs.

Programs and test scores, is there a link?

According to O’Neill, the district currently runs three major summer programs, Quest is run in conjunction with Franklin Pierce University and the Rotary Club, PEP for elementary school students, and the Extended Year Program, the last of which the district is required to run by Federal mandate.

“On several occasions I’ve asked about the educational value of both the Quest program and PEP program,” said Eicher. “I have yet to see any information, other than anecdotal, that demonstrates that there’s any academic or educational value to the Quest program and to the PEP program.

“Inherently, I believe there is,” Eicher added. “But I have yet to see any evidence of that — none.”

O’Neill said the district does have some empirical data on the programs and additional testimony from parents and educators that supports the efficacy of the programs.

“I believe that having extended programs in the summer for our most needy children, has provided significant impact on our NECAP scores,” said O’Neill. “I believe it would be penny wise and pound foolish to completely eliminate those programs. I think we can certainly have savings in those programs.

“I certainly feel they have value,” he added.

Clark-Kevan said other non-academic programs are important, too, and cited the many clubs and activities hosted by the district’s schools.

“As much as I’d like to see the educational value of everything we do in test scores, I think the school district does an excellent job of building an overall well-rounded person,” said Clark-Kevan. “Not just academically.”

Clark-Kevan added that he doesn’t want to consider eliminating programs until the board has a better sense from the administrative team regarding additional budget cut areas.

Pay-to-play sports

Weimann said the district could cut costs by implementing a pay-to-play sports program for students in the middle and high schools, and could save additionally on busing costs by having parents transport their kids to games.

Superintendent James O’Neill asked Weimann if his suggestion was exclusively for sporting events or whether he meant transportation to school as well. Weimann said he only meant for sports.

Later it was brought to the board’s attention that any money generated in a pay-to-play program would be revenue and would not help with balancing the budget for the 2014-15 school year.

Board member Jeff Clark-Kevan asked school administrators in attendance to look at their budgets and determine if there is any room to make additional cuts.

“I’d like to know if there is some cushion or conservativeness in our budget, and where we can take a less conservative approach,” said Clark-Kevan. “How far can we reduce the budget by looking at those areas?”

Downsizing versus program elimination

Eicher suggested looking at the budget from a different perspective. Instead of looking at it in terms of what they needed to cut, he said, they should look at which items they’d spend on if they had none of them.

“What is it on our list of things that we want that’s most important?” said Eicher.

Whitney later raised another point for board members and administrators to consider.

“If a program is downsized, if not eliminated, is there a point that it becomes so small that there is no longer any value to it?” he said. “In some things that we look at we can decrease or shift things, and there are times that you either keep it or you don’t keep it.”

Discretionary cuts

The board also discussed cutting discretionary spending items, including investments in technology, facilities and capital equipment improvements, and professional development.

The board determined that instead of purchasing SmartBoards and document cameras for Jaffrey Grade School and Rindge Middle School, they could instead utilize older equipment. They agreed that the district could go another year without an accounting systems upgrade, but will have to upgrade next year, since the current software will be discontinued.

They considered holding off on painting classrooms, which is done on a cycle. According to Whitney, they are already behind schedule on painting.

The board discussed using money from the teachers’ retirement line item, since it contains $114,000 and expenditures from that account have never exceeded 50 percent of the budgeted amount. They were wary of the idea, though, since they don’t know how many teachers who are eligible to retire will actually do so.

The board is planning to meet again next week, but has not yet set a date. Whitney said that as soon as the meeting time is determined, it will be posted on the school district’s website.

Hayden James can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or hjames@ledgertranscript.com.

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