By Thomas P. Caldwell
DANBURY — Superintendent Stacy Buckley and Business Administrator Michael Limanni reviewed the preliminary Newfound Area School District FY 2015-2016 budget with the district's budget committee last week, elaborating on some points and describing the adjustments to come in order to present a proposal that will fall within the property tax cap.
Buckley noted that Newfound is one of only two or three school districts in the state that have tax caps, apart from those like Franklin that work under a city-wide cap. She said the problem with Newfound is that past budgets have not included planned maintenance and she would like to get such plans in place; but doing so creates the need to reduce other areas of spending to avoid exceeding the tax cap.
Limanni said working on a budget at this time of year is hampered by the uncertainty of many sources of revenue, such as state adequacy aid. Normally, school districts can work with estimates when the actual numbers are unknown but, because of the tax cap, Newfound needs to be much more exact. With revenues in the range of $8.5 million, and a tax cap that limits the school district assessment to a two percent increase, minor fluctuations in income categories can create major problems for a tax cap district.
The budget committee was interested in finding out how the newly negotiated teachers' union agreement and the possibility of implementing full-day kindergarten fit into the central office's budget proposal. Buckley noted that the teachers' contract will appear in a separate warrant article, so the budget will need to be adjusted down to make room for the $305,620 in cost items associated with the first year of the contract. As for all-day kindergarten, she explained that the Newfound Area School Board will be taking up that topic at its next meeting.
"We have three schools that could potentially move to full-day kindergarten," she said, "but to do that at Bristol Elementary School would require one and a half more teachers."
As she did when presenting the budget to the school board earlier this month, Buckley went through her list of staffing adjustments, saying that, as much as possible, she is "trying to be creative when positions open up to see how we can be more efficient and more effective". As an example, she noted that, with a reduced population at the middle school, she reduced a secretary's position from full-time to part-time when the previous secretary left the district. There are other instances where she was able to replace aides with a paraprofessional to consolidate services.
In discussing the maintenance of facilities, Buckley corrected statements that had surfaced during the discussions about closing the middle school. "There is no problem with water in the basement," she said. While there had been problems in the past with water seeping into the building, in recent years the building has remained dry. The only problem had been a year ago when unusually warm and humid weather had caused a mold problem; but she noted the high school also had problems with mold that year.
The reason for wanting to replace the electronic fire panel at the middle school is that the current one, while in working order, only identifies that there is a problem, not what the problem is. A modern fire panel identifies exactly what needs to be done, Limanni explained.
In the area of technology, one of the proposals is to install Microsoft Office on all computers. Since the school board asked the district to migrate from Macintoshes to PCs, only some administrators have Office software; other staff members are using software that is incompatible, so they cannot "talk" with each other. Even those with Office have different versions of the software. The plan is to install the same version on all computers to make them more functional.
Likewise, the telephone system at the schools is antiquated with no replacements available, and classroom teachers lack the ability to communicate except by cell phones with unreliable reception. Buckley said that, as well as being inconvenient, it poses a safety concern, should an intruder make it into the schools.
Asked about the impact of tuition from Hill, should that school district choose to realign with Newfound, Buckley said there is no way to estimate that at the moment, as Hill has not even decided whether to choose Newfound and, once it does, the two sides would have to negotiate a tuition agreement.
Limanni said Newfound has proposed using Franklin's tuition formula, adjusted for Newfound expenses, but that there are a number of other factors that go into an agreement. "It might be a 10-year agreement, and we have no idea what will happen with the school population over that time period," he said. "We would need to build in variables to account for those changes, and there might be building constraints." While saying Hill students could be accommodated at present without additional staff at Newfound, Limanni added, "You wouldn't want to set up an agreement that, with the variables, makes you miss out on a million dollars. In a business, you'd never make a decision that way."
At the start of the meeting, the budget committee took up an issue Skip Reilly of Alexandria had raised last month: Limanni's requirement that budget committee members submit proof of eligibility to work in the United States and their Social Security numbers before receiving their school district stipends. Limanni said that, under Internal Revenue Service regulations, all those who receive money from the school district are "employees" who must submit the forms.
On Oct. 22, Limanni said he had checked with the N.H. Department of Labor which does not view elected officials as employees, in conflict with the IRS. When he asked for a letter from the Department of Labor stating that the district is exempt from IRS rules, the department refused to do so, he said.
Reilly tried to make the case that, if they are employees, they should have Workers' Compensation benefits; but Limanni said Workers' Comp falls under the jurisdiction of the Labor Department which does not consider them employees.
The budget committee resolved the issue by voting to discontinue its $100-a-year stipend, established to compensate members for their traveling expenses during budget season.
No one offered to second Reilly's motion to ask the school district to contact the N.H. School Boards Association to find out if the issue had ever been raised there and, if so, what the outcome had been. The motion called for the district to seek a legal opinion from the NHSBA attorney if the issue had not come up before.
The budget committee will meet next at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 13, at Newfound Memorial Middle School. At that time, the group will decide whether to publicly support the new teachers' contract and submit a letter to newspapers.