City Council opposition emerges to proposed teacher contract that would force override of tax cap
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — A teachers contract approved by the School Board and the Laconia Education Association faces opposition by the City Council, which must agree to fund the plan before it can take effect.
In backing a five-year contract that would call for the council to override the property tax cap, the board is "whistling in the wind," Councilor Brenda Baer said Wednesday.
"They are out of touch," she said. "I think the council majority would oppose any change to the tax cap."
An override would require a two-thirds vote of the City Council. It also relies on voter approval of a modification of the cap so the School District could make large budget increases in coming years. The five-year contract would put teacher salaries at or above most other districts in the area.
Baer said supporters of overriding the cap don't adequately consider people who can't afford tax increases.
"They forget the highest percentage of the population is the seniors who are no longer working, but living on Social Security, or pensions, savings and the willingness to live with less," she said. "They forget that over 60 percent of our students qualify for free lunches, breakfast and sometimes dinner."
Councilor Henry Lipman said his preference is also to stay within the tax cap.
"I'm of a mind that we should be able to work together within the cap," he said. "Generally, we've done 12 or 13 budgets within the tax cap and have been able to do some creative things to help schools along the way."
The tax cap, approved by voters 12 years ago, limits increases in property tax collections for the city, school and county budgets based on a formula tied to changes in the Federal National Consumer Price Index (urban) and new building permits less demolitions.
The school district would realize more than $500,000 in additional property tax revenue under the cap this coming year. This would lead to an increase in property tax rates by 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or $36 on a $200,000 home.
If the City Council allowed the tax cap to be exceeded by $300,000 to make the contract work, the additional burden on taxpayers would not be that great, School Board member Mike Persson said.
He gave a presentation on the contract to School Board members before they approved it Tuesday night.
Persson said an adequately funded school system would ultimately attract more middle-class families to Laconia and expand the property tax base.
Retention of quality teachers has been difficult because teacher salaries in the city compare poorly to other nearby towns, he said. A teacher with a bachelor's degree and eight years of experience in Laconia earns $41,826 yearly, compared to $56,612 at Inter-Lakes, $54,218 at Plymouth and $46,661 at Gilford.
Yearly teacher pay in the district now ranges from $36,412 for a first-step teacher with a bachelor's degree to $73,250 for a teacher in the 18th step and with a master's degree plus 30 credits.
Persson praised past council actions.
"The council has shown a willingness to invest in the city's future in the past and I believe they would do the right thing by approving a modest override and letting the voters decide the issue in November," he said.
School Board member Mal Murray also said there's a chance the City Council could approve a tax cap override, particularly given the wage disparity between Laconia teachers and their colleagues in nearby towns.
"Council members will realize, if they don't do something soon, we will have teachers leaving en masse," he said.
The School Board is exerting pressure on the City Council to make a politically difficult decision to raise taxes in an election year, but Murray said such pressure comes with public service.
"That's their job as a council," he said. "I get pressured as a School Board member. As issues come up, there's pressure not just on the City Council but on all of us."
Deborah Clarke-Tivey, president of the Laconia Education Association, noted that if the City Council doesn't approve the tax cap override, the school district and association representatives will have to go back to the bargaining table.
She called for a tax cap override, saying retaining a quality education system should be a priority for the public.
"I would hope that the taxpayers value what their educators in the city have done and would value the youth in the city," she said. "Our members are excellent educators who love this city and its children and most have stayed with the district for many years despite the fact they could earn far more by teaching elsewhere."