By Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — Facing an initial 2015-2016 budget that is $837,218 beyond the amount allowed under the property tax cap, the Newfound Area School Board nevertheless directed the superintendent to come up with a cost range for adding full-day kindergarten throughout the school district. Asked for a rough estimate of how much it would add to the budget, Superintendent Stacy Buckley put the figure at $250,000 to $300,000.
Buckley came to the Oct. 29 school board meeting with a list of $1,076,809 in possible cuts the board could make to bring the budget she had presented a month earlier in line with the tax cap, designed to limit the increase in the school district's assessment to the member towns to no more than two percent annually. Reviewing the items that might be cut, the board discussed trimming about $400,000 of the new expenditures — less than half of what is needed to meet the tax cap.
Many board members, however, wanted to make room in the budget for full-time kindergarten, regardless of how much more challenging it would make the task of staying within the tax cap. "This will go a long way toward improving student outcomes," said Vice-Chair Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater. "If we have to add the $200,000 to $300,000 it will take to do that, then we will have to go through however many meetings are necessary to get it right, including the problem with the tax cap."
The proposed budget for 2015-2016 stands at $20,734,377 which Buckley said she presented so the board would know what was "appropriate" to address school district needs in addition to basic costs. "I don't think the tax cap budget is appropriate," she said, conceding that she nevertheless had to adhere to it.
The recently agreed to teachers' contract would add another $305,620 to that figure, bringing the budget to $21,039,997. Business Administrator Michael Limanni said all that is allowed under the tax cap is $20,202,779 which is less than the current-year budget of $20,310,865.
Limanni explained his tax cap calculation which uses the current-year assessment to the towns as a basis for next year's figure. The local tax assessment for 2014-2015, after accounting for anticipated revenue, is $11,964,445 which means next year's assessment cannot exceed $12,203,734. Total estimated revenue for next year is $7,999,045, bringing the total allowed by the tax cap to $20,202,779.
Buckley said the school district attorney clarified the tax cap override provision: Neither the school board nor the budget committee can vote to override the cap; only the legislative body — the voters — can do so by amending the budget at the school district's deliberative session. Even then, under the municipal budget law, the voters can increase the budget committee's figure by no more than 10 percent.
Interestingly, she said, if the voters defeat the proposed budget and the default budget kicks in, the tax cap would not apply. Even if the default budget calculation works out to be higher than the tax cap budget, it still would take effect.
The other variable is that the school board could ask the budget committee to approve using some of the retained fund balance. Those additional revenues would increase the amount of spending allowed because it would not affect the local tax assessment.
The school board spent nearly an hour and a half going through the budget as proposed to understand the changes, many of them relating to properly allocating expenditures which, in the past, had appeared in the wrong categories, or were not broken out into enough detail. Limanni has been working to better account for spending and provide more safeguards to prevent misappropriation of funds.
A recurring subject during the meeting was the implementation of full-day kindergarten, with Chair Ruby Hill of Danbury saying, "My goal is to pass the teacher contract and add full-day kindergarten."
Sue Cheney of Alexandria was the lone dissenter, saying that, while she supports full-day kindergarten, she does not believe it can be properly implemented on such a short schedule. Buckley had said that it normally takes two years of planning to put in place a kindergarten program.
Part of the problem, Buckley said, is predicting how many students will participate in the program. Parents have said they send their preschoolers elsewhere because the district does not offer a full-day program. How many parents would choose to send their children to Newfound with a full-day program in place is unknown and Buckley said they should do a family poll to get some factual information to base their planning on. Higher enrollments could mean hiring additional teachers and, perhaps, create space problems.
Migliore, in his formal motion to add full-day kindergarten while also keeping half-day kindergarten as an option for parents, asked Buckley to provide a best-case, worst-case cost scenario for the board to consider at its next meeting. He said that, in order to fund the additional kindergarten hours, the board might have to look at closing one of the district's schools.
The school board had considered closing Newfound Memorial Middle School but, faced with opposition from voters at two public hearings on the matter, the board settled for addressing only the elementary schools, asking the superintendent to develop a plan for moving the sixth graders back into the elementary schools, which leaves only the seventh and eighth grades at the middle school.
Benjamin LaRoche of Bristol requested that time be set aside at the Nov. 10 school board meeting to discuss the possible need for a committee to look into how the seventh and eighth grades might be incorporated into Newfound Regional High School. "It's important to look into that prior to our discussion of K-6," he said.
In other business, the board had a brief discussion of the Bridgewater-Hebron Village District withdrawal study which had concluded that, while feasible, it was not desirable to withdraw from the Newfound Area School District at this point. Migliore pointed out that the board's decision to return the sixth grade students to the elementary schools was a major reason for the committee's decision not to withdraw.
Hill noted that the Bridgewater-Hebron discussion had resulted in the town selectmen deciding to get together to discuss common issues. The selectmen of the Newfound Area towns will be meeting in Bristol on Nov. 19.
During the public comment period, Heather Gosson of Bristol said she agreed with Cheney that next year would be too soon to implement full-day kindergarten, and she said, "I'm also dismayed that, after hearing from the voters, you keep trying to shut down the middle school."
John Sellers of Bristol complained at the beginning of the meeting that he had received no acknowledgement from the school board of his e-mail concerning school buses. He wanted the board to comment on why several of the buses had been taken off the road after not passing an unannounced state inspection. Because his email went out after the agenda had been set, the school board could not take the matter up, but the superintendent was preparing a response, according to Hill.