By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
GILFORD — Rebuffing the Budget Committee, voters restored the Gilford School Board's proposed operating budget of $26,019,631 for an up-or-down vote on March 14, setting up a showdown with citizens who want to see another $116,000 shaved next year.
The Budget Committee's proposed operating budget of $25,903,694 was increased at the deliberative session of School District Meeting on Friday, Feb. 10, to $26,019,631 for 2017-2018. If the article fails at town voting, the school district will adopt a default budget of $25,872,143.
Joseph Wernig proposed the amendment to boost the budget to the school board's higher level of spending, noting an exhaustive process undertaken by the school board to go through the budget line by line.
Wernig applauded the school board's effort and said its proposed 1.1 percent increase was reasonable.
"I've been living in Gilford for 29 years and three children have gone through the district, and the product that we put out — I hate to say 'product' but everyone treats the school district like a business — we put out an incredible product," Wernig said.
"I took offense to comments made by people earlier this year that we're paying for a Cadillac and we're getting a Yugo. We're getting a Cadillac in this district," he said.
Wernig warned that "people that want to cut the school budget" will be motivated to go to the polls.
"We can't just sit back and think it's going to pass like we did last year," he said.
Last year, voters struck down the proposed operating budget, leaving the district to run on a default budget.
Superintendent Kirk Beitler recalled that the Budget Committee "decided that our budget should be the same number as what our budget is this current year. ... That was a little surprising to us, for sure."
Beitler said school district officials asked what line items to review for restoring a lower budget, but the Budget Committee didn't give direction, he said.
The school board balked at cutting the additional $115,937 and voted 5-0 against recommending the $25,903,694 operating budget put forward by the Budget Committee.
The original budget, with $115,937 in additional cuts, would have resulted in layoffs, Beitler said.
"Truthfully, that doesn't sound like a huge number when you're talking about a $25 million or $26 million budget. But truth be told the school board again felt really good about the work they did. They worked long and hard to get to the number they came up with. If we go to cutting the $115,937, what that will mean is that will mean two support staff positions in our budget that we would have to reduce, and we would also do away with all increases in non-GEA — so support staff and administrators would have no increases, those would be pulled out. And we would lay off two support staff," Beitler said.
Challenged about why staff layoffs would ensue, Beitler said, "It's not mandated that that's where the money would have to come from," but he alluded to cuts already made.
At the start of the process, the school board trimmed out $296,421 by not paying for an elementary school librarian's position ($111,513) and swapping in a teacher; not replacing a middle school library aide ($33,724); cutting new equipment ($16,500); cutting technology ($60,700); eliminating textbooks ($71,984); and trimming professional development ($2,000).
A host of maintenance projects, including resurfacing of a rubberized track at the high school ($75,000) and stage and auditorium lighting ($85,000), went on a list of deferred projects, for $191,500 in savings, Beitler said.
The major cost increases facing the school district include $365,288 for health insurance; $215,890 for a Gilford Elementary School construction bond payment; and $86,303 for non-union staff increases, as well as $20,000 for psychological services and $74,445 for heating oil, according to the draft budget. Health insurance is rising by a guaranteed maximum of 14.4 percent, and the cost of that is $365,288 next year, a number built into the operating budget, Beitler said.
The school board's budget should be higher, argued Wendy Oellers-Fulmer, a "retired taxpayer" and former teacher who has a granddaughter in the school district.
"There is research that shows, strong schools, strong communities, real estate values go up. Your homes are worth more money," she said.
"To turn around and bash people who work everyday and work for children because they care, to me, is just an appalling thing to happen," Oellers-Fulmer said.
Fred Butler said, "I'm actually confused year in and year out why there is a level of disrespect from certain members of the Budget Committee." Butler rattled off statistics from the New Hampshire Department of Revenue, saying Gilford's school taxes are 152nd out of 196 towns with communities of comparable valuations.
Budget Committee Chairman Norman Silber said, "A variety of factors went into it," when explaining the vote for a lower budget. "No one on the Budget Committee has questioned the hard work by anybody who's employed by the school district."
School board representative to the Budget Committee, Chris McDonough, said the school board spent hours "dissecting the budget" and left no padding. "It wasn't until the 11th hour that this major bottom-line reduction was made," McDonough said. He pleaded with the Budget Committee to "put the past behind us, recommend this very responsible budget and stand with the school board."
A warrant article for the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the Gilford Education Association features an estimated increase in cost of $296,819 in 2017-2018.
Beth DeVivo praised district staff and urged a "yes" vote on the teachers' contract.
Critics pointed out that the contract compounds in cost, with $ 268,198 in the first year; $268,198 in the second year; and $ 245,392 in the third, for an accumulated cost of $1.6 million. Article 3 only asks for the first year's funding.
Article 3, for the teachers' contract, and Article 8, a citizen's petition to place the determination of the default budget in the hands of the Budget Committee, both prompted debate, but officials stipulated that neither, by law, could be amended.
The citizen's petition for a shift in oversight of the default budget spurred critics to say it would put too much power in the hands of the Budget Committee; while advocates said past abuses justified the change.
Butler questioned whether any impropriety had ever occurred, as he recalled how a "standing, capital item," the Imagination Station playground equipment, factored into a past default budget. Members of the Budget Committee contested this line item as a one-time expense that shouldn't have inflated the default budget.
District attorney Gordon Graham said, "What we can agree on is that there was a disagreement about that practice."
On the one article that was amended, the operating budget, the school board and the Budget Committee differed. The Budget Committee voted 7-3 to not recommend the amended operating budget. Member Kevin Leandro said end balance in the school district of $375,000 could cover the $115,937 difference, negating the need for staff cuts.
"Historically, we've seen $400,000, $500,000, $600,000, $700,000 turned back to the voters in surplus. There's absolutely no reason to add any more money into this budget. There's enough fat built into it," Leandro said.
Leandro also said school officials told the Budget Committee that all it has is "bottom line authority," so that's why members didn't recommend specific cuts.
"This is not sustainable to the taxpayers at all," he said, taking special aim at the collective bargaining agreement.
If Article 3, the multi-year agreement, fails at the polls, another article allows the school district to pay for a special meeting to reopen negotiations.
Voting takes place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14, at the Gilford Youth Center.
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