by Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — Newfound Area School District voters at the Feb. 1 deliberative session restored funding that the budget committee had cut from the school board's proposed spending for 2014-2015 but would not agree to increase it further to support a football program at the middle school level.
Those attending the Saturday morning meeting at Newfound Regional High School also failed to support a warrant article that would have funded a school resource (police) officer. With neither the school board nor the budget committee recommending passage of the article — the school board had a 3-3 tie with the Hebron member abstaining from the vote, while the budget committee unanimously opposed the article — voters amended the appropriation to zero, effectively killing the position.
The operating budget and the proposed teacher contract generated some discussion, but a recurring issue during the two hour and 45-minute annual meeting centered on administrative changes that have little impact on the budget. Several speakers took issue with the superintendent's plan to eliminate 19.5 paraprofessional positions, most of which are devoted to special needs students, replacing them with three certified teachers who would work directly with students. Superintendent Stacy Buckley said, "I believe we can meet the needs of all students by utilizing our resources better," and she explained that some of the reductions are a result of changes in students' individualized educational programs. Philosophically, she said, she believed in shifting resources to the students and away from teacher assistants.
Newfound Area School Board Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater defended the superintendent's actions, saying the board had directed her to review all personnel and support positions and to make recommendations for re-alignments, reductions, or increases to better meet students' needs. "We used factual, not anecdotal data," he said, "and our decisions were made with a lot of deliberation."
Hinting of serious problems uncovered during the review process — "I wish all of you could sit in on our school board meetings, or better yet, our nonpublic sessions" — Migliore said, "We've come across many things to be addressed and done. ... The superintendent is trying to get things under control in a variety of ways."
In discussing the proposed collective bargaining agreement with the teacher's union, Vice-Chair Ruby Hill of Danbury said the district sought a three-year contract that would result in teachers spending more time with students. The new contract would eliminate 19 days of authorized leave while granting wage increases of two percent in the first year, two percent in the second year, and 2.5 percent in the third year of the contract. Teachers also would receive the so-called step increases that are built into the pay scales, based on longevity. The agreement also provides a cost-of-living adjustment to those at the top of the pay scale who do not receive step increases, and a two percent increase for co-curricular stipends.
Fran Wendelboe, chair of the Newfound Area School District Budget Committee, explained why that body did not support the agreement. She said that, between the step increases and the COLAs, a teacher on Step 1 who now makes $34,370 a year would be earning $39,625 by the third year of the contract, an increase of $5,255. A teacher on Step 10 earning $46,313 would be earning $54,485, a raise of $8,172 in three years' time, she said. The total three-year cost to the district would be an additional $861,451.
"We felt that most of our taxpayers would not see that much of an increase in their wages," Wendelboe said. "The give-back on leave time did not come anywhere near making up for that, so there are no projected savings at this time."
Retired teacher Natalie Murphy of Bridgewater said Newfound teachers are in the bottom third in terms of earnings among educators in the state. "Don't punish our teachers because they're the only salaries you have control over," she pleaded.
In discussing the hiring of an SRO for the district, Migliore said, "There is no more important personal goal than providing for the safety of our students and employees."
Buckley said a school resource officer would be responsible for safety workshops and protocols, would be able to handle crime and drug issues in the schools, and serve as a liaison between the police department and the schools.
Wendelboe said the budget committee did not support the position, noting that previous times the district has had an officer in the schools, "It didn't work out very well." She also noted that the high school is a mere two miles from the New Hampton Police Department, should an emergency occur. "We haven't seen any need for this position," she concluded.
Lloyd Belbin, the school board member from Bristol, had been among those voting against the position. "I've worked in all phases of law enforcement," he said, "and this doesn't affect the safety of our students. ... We've just spent $90,000 for a surveillance system," he added, saying that is a more effective way to provide protection.
Archie Auger of Bristol who has retired as a school district official moved to "zero-fund" the position, and the amendment passed on a voice vote.
Voters did not go along with the budget committee's recommendation to reduce the budget from the school board's version by eliminating two guidance positions, even though the superintended had recommended one of the cuts. Newfound currently provides 7.8 guidance positions while state standards call for 3.3, based on current enrollment. Wendelboe pointed out that, even if the two positions were cut, Newfound still would exceed the state requirements.
The budget committee also had eliminated $5,000 in administrative stipends, $2,000 in equipment replacement, $2,674 in miscellaneous board expenditures, and $9,999 in legal expenditures.
Hebron school board member Don Franklin pointed out that the school board's original budget proposal, although higher than the budget committee's budget, was still less than current-year spending and it is $200,000 below what the tax cap allows.
A motion to restore the school board's appropriation passed on a 124-68 hand vote.
With those amendments, the warrant now will go onto the ballot for a decisions at the polls on March 11.