By Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — The Newfound Area School District Budget Committee received an updated budget proposal on Nov. 13, reflecting changes the school board made to bring its FY 2015-2016 spending in line with the district's property tax cap.
The school board on Nov. 10 voted to approve a budget of $21,818,244, of which $20,134,617 represents general fund expenditures. With a separate warrant article calling for $305,620 to fund the first year of the negotiated agreement with the Newfound Area Teachers Association, the total general fund budget amounts to $20,440,237, which is $3,874 less than the amount allowed by the tax cap.
The school board originally was looking at a $21,039,997 general fund expenditure which, after accounting for anticipated revenue, would have forced the board to cut spending by $837,218 to meet the cap. Since then, Business Administrator Michael Limanni received the figures for the Health Trust insurance premium surplus, which increased the anticipated revenues upward from $7,999,045 to $8,240,377.
Spending adjustments, meanwhile, included a higher increase in health insurance premiums — 8.5 percent instead of the seven percent he had estimated — which added $38,373 to the budget; and a retiring teacher added another $12,137 to benefit payments. Offsetting the higher spending were staff changes coming next year that will reduce the non-teacher retirement costs by $44,353 and teacher retirement by $85,123.
With those changes, the school board still had to cut $520,794 from the superintendent's proposed budget to stay within the cap. The board trimmed $20,000 in textbooks, leaving the majority of the money the superintendent had proposed in that category. New furniture was reduced by $25,548; school board legal funds were cut by $10,000; and another $10,000 was cut by moving training funds to Title IIA. Other reductions were $46,500 in technology spending; $65,894 through a change in health insurance for specialists; $10,960 that would have gone toward refinishing gymnasium floors at Newfound Memorial Middle School and Newfound Memorial High School; $191,015 that would have replaced the telephone system at all schools; $16,000 for a new projector for the high school auditorium; $10,000 for painting buildings; $93,000 for the replacement of the roof at the middle school; and the elimination of $21,877 for administrators' wage increases.
The budget committee will be going through the budget in detail in preparation for its next session on Nov. 19 at the Bridgewater-Hebron Village School. At that time it will develop its own budget for presentation to the voters and make a decision on whether to support the negotiated teachers' contract.
On Thursday night, school board member Jeff Levesque of Groton explained the board's reasoning in making the cuts it did, as well as its decision to drop its push for all-day kindergarten. While six of the seven board members had voted last month to ask the superintendent to develop a plan to implement full-day kindergarten next year, the board reconsidered that decision in light of the challenge the tax cap presented.
"The majority felt that would have a whiplash effect at the deliberative session," Levesque said. "We expected it would result in the board's budget and the teachers' contract being shot down. It was very important to the school board that we didn't add anything back in that would jeopardize the budget or the contract, and that made for some hard decisions."
Harold "Skip" Reilly, vice-chair of the budget committee, asked whether cutting the money for building maintenance would "come back to bite us". Levesque said that, if there should be an emergency, such as a major roof leak at the middle school, the school board could come back to the budget committee seeking the release of the $400,000 in reserve funds the board had set aside from last year's unexpended fund balance.
Limanni noted that the district is developing a capital improvement plan with the intention of establishing capital reserve funds to set aside money to handle planned maintenance and equipment replacement. "With the tax cap, that's almost a necessity now," he said. "The middle school would be included in that."
As to dropping the new phone system which had been touted as being important to school safety, Levesque said they are hoping to work with the Town of Bristol to site a cellular tower that would improve phone reception in the district so teachers would have a way to communicate during an emergency. "It's not a solution, but it's a supportive measure," he said.
The budget committee also discussed the debate about reducing the number of facilities maintained by the district. The school board had voted to hire a consultant to do a thorough study of demographics, building capacity, and space needs to determine if it makes sense to close the middle school and transfer the seventh and eighth graders to the high school. The board previously voted to move sixth graders from the middle school to the elementary schools.
Limanni said the study is important because "We don't want to fill the elementary schools to capacity and end up stuffing kids into modulars."
At the end of the meeting, Reilly, who was presiding over the meeting, opened the floor to comments from the public.
Steve Favorite of Bristol, a member of the Newfound Education Conference Group that formed to bring business expertise to the operation of the school district, provided a history of the tax cap, explaining that the school district adopted it after several years of large budget increases that administrators could not justify. He said that, although the budget committee's task is not an easy one, his group is willing to help in any way it can.
Favorite noted that there are grants to assist communities with security needs and he said the recent armed robbery of Bristol's Rite Aid Pharmacy, as well as an incident at Dunkin' Donuts, could be used to justify an application for funding for the phone system the district needs.
He also noted that he has been working on a cell tower solution and that the Lakes Region Planning Commission has worked with demographics and could be helpful to the school district.
John Sellers of Bristol raised the issue of Hill student tuition, saying Newfound needs to demonstrate that it cares about its buildings and its technology if it wants to attract those students. Hill is trying to negotiate tuition agreements with Newfound, Winnisquam, and Merrimack Valley, as well with Franklin where it currently sends its middle and high school students.