Councilor suggests closing one of three elementary schools may be necessary
By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The focus of city and school leaders when they meet Friday will be finding a way to fund salary hikes for teachers, but even if they accomplish that, the Laconia School District is likely to face financial problems for years to come.
The council on Monday night agreed to postpone making a final decision on whether to fund a proposed bargaining agreement between the School District and the teachers’ union.
The district is seeking a guaranteed minimum of $850,000 per year in property tax cap space to fund the five-year contract, which would bring teacher compensation to a level equal to or slightly above most other area school systems. Under the tax cap formula that is written into the City Charter their 2017-2018 increase is limited to $508,000.
The problem is that this revenue, if used mainly for teacher pay hikes, would not be available to cover other increasing expenses, including cost of heating, health insurance and the retirement program, Mayor Ed Engler said at the City Council meeting.
"If you take a $500,000 hit, in two years on the retirement fund you're screwed again," he said during School Board member Mike Persson's presentation. "I'm just saying that for anybody in this room who thinks this is a cure-all to school budget issues, it's not."
Persson acknowledged that cuts in the coming years are likely to be necessary, even if the district gets the additional revenue it is seeking.
"We're going to need to look at making cuts each and every year moving forward," he said. "That's the reality."
The district may be forced to consider closing one of its three elementary schools, Councilor Brenda Baer said Wednesday.
"I kind of think that might be a do-able process," she said. "Divide up one of the schools, whichever has less students and less room, and send the students to the two schools that could probably absorb them."
There are 1,962 students in the high school, the middle school and the elementary schools, down from 2,288 a decade ago, Baer said.
Stiff opposition would be expected from the community surrounding whatever school was slated for closure.
Such a closure would also boost class size. Class sizes in grades 2 through 5 are now about 20, five under the maximum allowed by the state.
Persson said it would be difficult to close one elementary school and stay within state class size requirements.
Some 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 ways to fund the teacher contract. The council will then meet on June 5 to consider the contract again.
A complication is the city's property tax cap.
Under the cap, a total of $508,000 in additional money could be applied to pay raises and other expenses in the School District in the first year of the contract.
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.
It also called on the City 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 would allow for district budget increases of at least $850,000 yearly.
City Council members have expressed opposition to altering the tax cap.
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