By RICK GREEN
LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Members of the City Council and the School Board will try to fashion a deal to give teachers significant pay raises despite the constraints of the city's property tax cap.
The council decided on that strategy at a packed meeting Monday night as an alternative to an immediate vote for or against a five-year contract approved by the teachers' union and the School Board.
Several dozen people overflowed the council chamber, many wearing red, Laconia School District-realted T-shirts. Some in the crowd complained teachers are grossly underpaid, while others argued against tax hikes for salary increases.
Amanda Youssef, a fourth-grade teacher at Elm Street School, testified before the council. She has a daughter who will be entering kindergarten next year.
"As parents we're gravely concerned about the future of Laconia schools," she said.
Last year, the School District made $1.7 million in budget cuts, and this year nearly $900,000 in cuts are anticipated. Teachers, who are among the lowest-paid in the region, are working without a contract. Yearly salary step increases for experience have not been granted in four out of the last 12 years.
"As a teacher I can share with you that I've sacrificed tens of thousands of dollars during times our contracts were frozen to save other teachers positions because that is what is best for our students," Youssef said.
"I am appalled when I research other districts and see what I would be making had I not made the decision to come back and continue to contribute to the city I love."
Even more troubling, Youssef said, is that many quality teachers are leaving the district to seek higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
Longtime Laconia resident Richard Hodgman asked the council to consider that some people can't afford tax hikes.
"I feel like a piece of red meat that has been thrown into a lion's cage as I see all these beautiful teachers here who have done a great job," he said. "But on the other hand I have lived here since 1960, worked here since 1960, and believe me it's getting tougher and tougher."
He said his costs of medical care continue to increase, while his income remains static.
"I hope that the council here remembers there are an awful lot of older people here who really, really can't afford some big, big changes," Hodgman said.
He said he would support major teacher raises under one condition.
"I'll go along with it if you guys can get me that same raise," he said.
The tentative contract would ultimately put Laconia teacher salaries at or above most other districts in the area, but the plan requires City Council approval.
A presentation to the School Board before it approved the contract indicated the agreement was contingent on a 2017-2018 tax cap override sufficient to fund a budget increase of at least $850,000.
A tax-cap override is a non-starter for most council members.
Growth provided under the tax cap inflation factors will provide $508,000 in additional money that could be applied to pay raises in the school district in the first year of the new contract.
School board member Mike Persson said there are variables that make it difficult to calculate exactly how much additional funding would be needed initially.
One of these variables is state funding.
The district could get as much as $400,000 in additional money from the state for full-day kindergarten under pending legislation. Some of this money could free up for the contract money the district now spends on full-day kindergarten.
However, since the legislation hasn't passed yet, uncertainty remains.
Also, 17 teachers are leaving the district or making plans to do so. It's possible that the district could save money if their replacements are less experienced and can be hired at a lower wage.
One provision of the tentative pact calls for the council to place a measure on the November ballot that would allow voters to place a floor on the tax cap for the next five years. That floor would allow for district budget increases of at least $850,000 yearly, a figure that would include whatever growth occurs through annual growth in the tax cap. Such growth comes under a formula tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index (urban) and new building permits less demolitions.
Some council members hope that additional state funding for full-day kindergarten together with the natural growth of the tax cap could provide enough money for the contract so that they don't have to consider overriding the cap or asking voters to consider altering the cap.
Council member Henry Lipman said creative solutions have been found for school funding in the past, and he thinks one can be found in this instance.
"I think we can find a way to solve the gap between what the tax cap provides and what is needed to fund a contract without having to resort to overriding the tax cap, which ends up being a scary thought for those on fixed incomes," he said. "There are a number of different ideas that can be pursued to stay within the tax cap and still meet the gap that is here."
Council members, school board members and staff are to hold meetings at 3 p.m. in the council chambers Friday and June 2 to pursue these ideas. The council will then meet on June 5 to consider the contract again.
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