$26M budget includes staff cuts
Petition articles for SRO, hockey team
JAFFREY — During a three-hour public hearing session Thursday night, the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative District School Board fielded concerns about cost increases in the proposed budget for the 2014-2015 school year. The School Board is proposing a $26,019,402 operating budget, a $790,551, or 3.13 percent, increase over the 2013-2014 budget. All but one board member voted to support the budget as is.
The School Board’s budget plan calls for the elimination of five full-time special education instructional associates and 1.5 full-time teachers.
The board put forward $225,317 in suggested warrant articles, and two petition warrant articles are requesting an additional $102,000. One is calling for the student resource officer program to be reinstated at a cost of $80,000 — which the School Board voted not to support — while another asks for $22,000 to jump-start an interscholastic hockey team.
In the event that voters do not approve the proposed 2014-2015 budget in March, the default budget for 2014-2015 is $25,541,923, a 1.24 percent, or approximately $300,000, increase over last year’s operating budget.
School Board Chair Daniel Whitney of Rindge said at the meeting’s start, “We’d rather not have smoke and mirrors.” What followed was an in-depth discussion of the proposed costs, reductions and proposed warrant articles.
For cost increases, the potential of adding wireless upgrades for two school buildings at a cost of $125,000 was a concern for some at Thursday’s meeting.
Rindge Select Board members Roberta Oeser and Samuel Seppala questioned how necessary the wireless upgrade was, and why the district bought devices that they did not have the technology for in the first place.
School district Supt. Jim O’Neill responded that the schools originally bought iPads for one or two classrooms, and then eventually continued to add more as the demand grew. With devices being used throughout the school buildings, wireless access has become more necessary, according to O’Neill.
“As we implemented the program, we’ve come to the conclusion that we need to upgrade the building[s],” he said.
Other proposed cost increases are for items like paint and carpet replacement, an accounting system upgrade, security improvements, locker replacements, smart boards, a new elementary math program, newly-engineered playground shavings and $16,700 for professional development. All of these items went largely uncontested after the School Board explained each item’s purpose.
But residents were interested in understanding the non-discretionary hike in costs for teacher salaries and benefits. Rob Stephenson, a Jaffrey resident, questioned the board about those line items, to which Whitney responded that 2014-2015 was an “odd-ball” year that included not only a bump up in teachers’ pay schedule, but it also would include rising health care premiums — a 7.2 percent increase — with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Despite the high costs for teachers, the School Board highlighted their proposed budget reduction of $133,738, with the elimination of five full-time student services instructional associates, all of which are currently special education student aide positions. The board also proposed doing away with 1.5 full-time teachers at Conant High School, a $95,059 reduction.
Conant High School Principle John Barth said that in addition to the proposed reduction of the number of full-time teaching and aide positions, the school’s decrease in enrollment over the last few years and the shift to a seven-period hybrid schedule next year will mean a reassessment of staffing levels.
“We’ll look at staffing, we’ll look at student requests,” Barth said.
Whitney added, “Part of this is looking at how things play up class-wise.”
Other highlighted reductions for the proposed 2014-2015 budget include an approximately $75,000 drop in utility costs, a $33,750 reduction in bond interest, and the $54,000 elimination of the Nashua Community College program. According to the School Board, enrollment was too low in the community college program in previous years to continue funding the motor program students could attend there.
“We could not get the numbers to support the program. It just didn’t work,” said Whitney.
As part of the conversation about teacher reductions in the proposed budget, Rindge School Board representative Charles Eicher brought up his concerns about district spending on teachers, 71 percent of the costs in the 2014-2015 proposed budget.
“District spending is going up,” Eicher said. “Fewer teachers for fewer students equals reduced costs.” Eicher added that he didn’t think the school district should eliminate teaching positions “willy-nilly,” but should take those costs into more consideration while budgeting for the district. “I think we’re barking up the wrong tree with the budget,” he said.
Whitney agreed that the board does need to assess how they balance finances and education, and that student-to-teacher ratios are something to consider. “It is something that I think we need to delve into,” he said.
After outlining the various changes in the 2014-2015 proposed operating budget for the district, School Board members went on to present nine warrant articles.
The most controversial of the articles beyond the proposed budget was the $225,317 collective bargaining agreement between the school district and the Jaffrey-Rindge Education Association. The agreement would raise teacher salaries and benefits across the board an average of $1,118, or 2.26 percent, according to Whitney.
The reason for the raises, said Whitney, is that the district needs to be more competitive to attract teachers. “When we’re trying to compete to bring new teachers in when older teachers retire, we find our salaries are significantly lower than other districts,” he said.
While some questioned the size of the increase compared to inflation, others agreed with the board.
“I do understand having to be competitive,” Seppala said, referring to the town of Rindge’s recent efforts to create town-wide pay raises for its employees.
The other warrant articles caused less of a stir, and include allowing the district to accept personal property and raising and appropriating up to $50,000 from the district’s fund balance for purchasing property abutting the school buildings for later development.
Petition warrant articles
The last items presented at the Thursday meeting were two petition warrant articles. The first, spearheaded by Jaffrey resident and mother Alison Bergeron, is an article suggesting that the district spend $80,000 to reinstate a school resource officer to improve security in the district’s four buildings.
“I honestly believe that we need to reinstate that [SRO program],” Bergeron said. After sharing a statistic from a recent ABC news report that said school shootings had doubled since 2009, Bergeron said, “I think we need to be proactive about security in our schools. It’s not a threat that’s going away.”
Not everyone agreed with Bergeron, some expressing doubt about the practical usefulness of having one SRO for four buildings.
“The district, by increasing the security of the property [as a budget line item], are doing the things they need,” said Budget Advisor Rick Sirvint of Rindge.
A second petition warrant article calls for the institution of an interscholastic hockey team for the high school, which would be in conjunction with Monadnock Regional School District. The article proposed $22,000, which would help pay for half of the program’s costs.
While some questioned the necessity of the program, others like petition signee and Jaffrey resident John Robbins said that kids who play hockey in the area should be able to play for their school. “I think they should be given a chance,” Robbins said.
The School Board then took a vote on the articles they would recommend at the Deliberative Session to be held on Feb. 5 at Rindge Memorial School.
The board voted to support seven of the warrant articles unanimously, with three members recusing themselves from the collective bargain agreement, since they have family members who would be affected by the suggested pay raises. The article which put forward the 2014-2015 operating budget, passed 6-1-0, with Charles Eicher opposing.
The petition warrant article for $80,000 to reinstate the SRO got a 0-7 vote not to recommend, though it will still be on the ballot for voters to decide on in March.
The petition warrant article for $22,000 for a hockey team did pass, with a 4-3-0 vote to recommend it to voters.