Newfound board splits over following recommendations of budget committee

by Thomas P. Caldwell

BRISTOL — The Newfound Area School Board split its vote on Jan. 13 when it came time to decide which warrant articles to support at the Feb. 1 deliberative session, with the majority opposing the budget that will go before the voters. The board also was closely divided over the article to hire a school resource (police) officer and, failing to attain a majority, goes on record as opposing the position it originally voted to create.
Last week, the Newfound Area School District Budget Committee reduced the proposed 2014-2015 operating budget from the school board's $20,310,865 figure to $20,167,997, eliminating guidance positions at the elementary and high schools, cutting $5,000 from a proposed stipend at the middle school, reducing the appropriation for legal fees by $9,999, and cutting $4,674 in other areas. It is the budget committee's recommendation that goes before the voters during the annual school district meeting.
The budget committee also opposed the newly negotiated collective bargaining agreement with the Newfound Area Teachers Association which provides for two percent cost of living increases in addition to the "step" increases on the pay scale for the first two years and a 2.5 percent COLA plus step increases in the third year. The agreement also would provide a two percent increase in co-curricular stipends in the first year of the three-year contract, with "significant" change in the language regarding authorized leave.
The cost increases in the teachers' contract would amount to $277,225 in the first year, $271,747 in the second year, and $312,479 in the third year.
This year, the entire school board was to serve as the district's negotiating team but New Hampton member Paul Rheinhardt could not attend the sessions and, during Monday's vote, he sided with the budget committee in opposing the contract. The other six members of the seven-member board, which had constituted the negotiating team for the district, supported the agreement.
The budget committee also had voted to oppose the $51,840 appropriation to hire a school resource officer who would be part of the Bristol Police Department but would serve in the district schools. The school board had placed the article on the warrant but, after the budget committee's vote, only Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater, Suzanne Cheney of Alexandria, and Jeff Levesque of Groton voted to support the article. Vice-Chair Ruby Hill of Danbury, Lloyd Belbin of Bristol, and Rheinhardt opposed the article, while Don Franklin of Hebron abstained from the vote. Because there was no majority, the warrant article will show that the school board did not recommend it.
After discussing the budget article, Rheinhardt and Belbin voted to go along with the budget committee's proposal but the rest of the board voted to oppose it because of the positions that had been eliminated.
During the public comment period, several people questioned the guidance cuts. Although the school district still would have more guidance positions than the state requires, Kathleen Connor of Hebron, a guidance counselor herself, said the state's minimum standards do not address student needs. Saying she was not concerned about her own position — "I'm very adaptable," she said — she was concerned about the students and what was best for them.
Fred Robinson, a paraprofessional educator at Newfound Regional High School, criticized the district's plan to replace para support with teacher support, eliminating four para-educators in Title I programs and 14.2 paras in special education while adding special education teachers. "So far, we've heard nothing about what the actual plan is," he said. "Has it been tried in other school districts? Is there any record of success? We only hear about staff reductions and money."
Because the Newfound Area School District operates under the Official Ballot Act, the school board at the Jan. 13 meeting also set the default budget that will take effect if the voters turn down the proposed 2014-2015 budget. The default budget is based on the previous year's approved budget, with adjustments for contractual obligations, debt service, and one-time items.
Business Administrator Michael Limanni said this year's default budget figure also addresses some discrepancies he has found with the way the default budget has been presented in the past. The official budget forms that the district has to file include federal grants and food service funds but those have not been included as part of the budget presented in past years.
Last year's general fund appropriation was $20,381,259 but the budget also included $636,249 for food service and $1,111,827 funded by federal grants, for a total of $22,065,040. The proposed budget of $20,167,997 will have additional food service $609,615 plus $1,024.957 in anticipated grants.
Limanni calculated the default budget to be $22,264,557, which the school board approved.
The default budget is larger than both the school board's and the budget committee's proposals because of the cuts that have been proposed. All three fall within the school district's tax cap which allows for an additional $420,272 in spending in order to stay within a two percent increase in the tax levy.
The school board had asked Limanni to provide an explanation to the voters of how the tax levy differs from budgeted appropriations. Many taxpayers, including members of the school board, were dismayed to see their tax bills increase last year when they had expected to see them go down.
During school and municipal annual meetings, voters often ask what the tax impact of their spending will be. Typically, they are told that, if they approve a particular item, it will add a certain amount to their tax bills, usually expressed as dollars per $1,000 of assessed valuation. They may be told that a building project will add $1 to the tax rate, or $200 for a home assessed at $200,000.
Limanni explained the reasons why that might not turn out to be true. First, he said, the tax levy will vary by town, based on the number of students residing in that community. Using figures from 2011 through 2013, he said Alexandia's ADM-R (average daily membership-residence) increased from 18.74 in 2011 to 19.60 in 2012, a .86 percent increase, to 20.35 in 2013, a .75 percent increase. During the same period, Bridgewater's ADM-R dropped from 8.65 to 7.48 (-1.17 percent), then rose to 8.18 (.70 percent). So Alexandria's portion of the school assessment has steadily increased while Bridgewater's has fluctuated.
Also affecting how much each town pays is the amount of the state's Equitable Aid Grant, which also varies from year to year based on a formula for calculating that aid. Alexandria's aid went up, resulting in less money to be raised by taxation, while aid to Bristol, Danbury, Groton, and New Hampton was reduced, leaving the towns to pay more to the district. Bridgewater and Hebron qualify for no state aid.
A third reason that the tax impact of the budget may be different from projected is that there is a difference between what was budgeted and what was spent. If there is an unexpanded fund balance at the end of the fiscal year, the school district may retain a portion of that surplus, or return it to the towns to reduce taxation.
The other major factor affecting the property tax rate, Limanni said, is the town's assessed valuation of the individual's property. In his written explanation, which will be placed on the SAU website, Limanni states, "If your town has been allocated a $500,000 share of the local education tax, and your neighbor's house has gone down in value while your own home has gone up in value (because the ice storm knocked down the trees that were blocking your view of the lake), then you could actually see an increase in taxes while your buddy just down the road is seeing a decrease."
Limanni noted that other factors affecting the tax bill include the county tax assessment, "but those are the four main reasons your taxes might go up even if the budget goes down".
The school board asked Limanni to review the allocation of last year's unexpended fund balance after questions at the Jan. 10 budget hearing revealed some confusion about the amount that can be retained by the school district. New Hampshire law allows a district to retain 2.5 percent of the net assessment but there was disagreement over whether that includes the whole budget. While the N.H. Department of Revenue Administration has agreed that the $350,000 retained was appropriate, Limanni will clear up how the DRA defines "net assessment" to make sure the district accurately calculates that amount.