November opponents promised if Laconia City Council doesn’t go along with the plan
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The School Board and the teachers' union approved a five-year contract Tuesday night that would put salaries at or above most other districts in the area and be contingent on a two-thirds vote of the City Council to override the property tax cap.
The City Council has to agree to fund the contract before it can take effect.
It also relies on voter approval of a modification of the cap so that the School District could make large budget increases in coming years.
By approving the spending plan, the School Board is exerting pressure on the City Council to make a politically difficult decision to raise taxes in an election year.
School Board member Mike Persson called for City Council members to override the tax cap for the new fiscal year and to schedule a city charter amendment vote in November election to modify the cap for the future.
"If they approve it, there could be a fairly smooth election cycle," said Persson, who made a presentation on the contract to the board on Tuesday night. "If not, most (city councilors) would face opposition in November."
Mayor Ed Engler declined comment on the tentative pact pending a May 22 school district budget presentation to the council.
The tax cap, approved by voters in November 2005, limits increases in property tax collections for the city, school and county budgets based on a formula tied to changes in the Federal National Consumer Price Index (urban) and new building permits less demolitions.
Under that formula, the School District could increase its 2017-2018 budget by $544,000. The new tentative contract calls for a budget increase of at least $850,000 yearly. The agreement can be terminated in any year in which the council does not increase the district's budget by at least that amount.
Persson said the contract seeks to offer competitive teacher pay to attract and retain quality teachers.
"Good teachers continue to leave and we cannot hire good experienced teachers to replace them," he said.
He said the spending plan could also attract more middle-class families to Laconia.
"The main driver behind middle class families locating to a city is the perception of the public schools' quality and the availability of strong co-curricular programming," Persson said.
In the first year of the contract, teachers at all experience steps are to get a $700 salary increase. Teachers at the top step are to receive an additional $1,000, resulting in a total increase of $1,700 for teachers in this category in the first year of the contract.
In the second year, all steps are to be given a $1,200 increase. Teachers in the top step would receive an additional $1,300.
The contract uses Gilford teacher salaries as a reference point.
More than 60 percent of Laconia teachers are four steps behind their proper steps because of step freezes in prior years, according to Persson.
"A teacher with a bachelor's degree and 12 years of experience earns $3,447 less than their proper step and $9,419 less than a Gilford teacher with the same experience," Persson said in his presentation.
Under this proposal, teachers who are four steps behind move up two pays steps in the first year.
By the end of the contract, all steps are to approximate 102 percent of the corresponding step on the Gilford projected base salary scale.
Yearly teacher pay in the district now ranges from $36,412 for a first-step teacher with a bachelor's degree to $73,250 for a teacher in the 18th step and with a master's degree plus 30 credits.
"The increases would put our scale at or slightly above most other area districts but still significantly below Concord and Inter-Lakes," Persson said.
He also noted that the contract is for a longer term than is typical.
"We recognized that we could not immediately fix the salary issues that had developed over 11 years and that a long-term contract was the only way to accomplish our objectives while reducing the burden on taxpayers," he said. "Although these types of contracts are typically only three years in length, we negotiated a five-year contract to reduce the annual increases to reasonable levels."
The new contract includes total annual increases in teacher pay of $720,351.
It also allows the district to offer increased pay for teachers in critical shortage areas, such as computer programming.
Persson said the tax cap override and the vote on tax cap changes are necessary.
"We understood going into negotiations that we would not be able to cut enough from our budget this year, or in coming years, to be able to fix these problems within the confines of the current tax cap," he said.
"We cut over $1.6 million from our budget last year and will be cutting up to $900,000 from our budget this year. Even with these cuts, we will still need an override of a few hundred thousand dollars to make the numbers work this year."
If voters agree to change the City Charter to allow the district to increase its property tax by $850,000 a year, future City Council override votes would not be needed.
"If the voters feel that it is a good investment in the city's future, they will vote to approve it," he said. "If they don't, they will vote against it and the district will need to re-evaluate its operations and, likely, will pursue the closure of one of our elementary schools and the elimination, or substantial reduction, of other programs. We hope that this won't be necessary but the district cannot continue down its current path without adequate funding to do so."
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