April 21, 2013

RSU 14 wants $159K shaved off budget by Leah Hoenen

The Board of Directors of RSU 14 met to deliberate the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget and directed district administrators to try to reduce the budget by a total $150,000. Board members called the $39.8 million budget responsible, but expressed concern over its effect on tax rates.

At the start of the Wednesday, April 10 deliberations, the board heard that the budget has already gone down $82,457, giving administrators a targeted reduction of $67,543 more. Members debated how to reduce spending without losing more teachers or cutting programs. As presented, the budget calls for reductions in classroom teachers and education technicians across the district.

Net savings already being seen

Assistant Superintendent Donn Davis said the budget has been adjusted since board members last met, resulting in a net savings of $82,457. Those changes include the restoration of one-fifths time high school family and consumer science teaching position, increased health insurance costs, a less-than-expected increase in non-union salaries and the introduction of a potential retirement incentive for teachers already of retirement age, Davis said. The district does not offer an early-retirement incentive, he said.

“The retiree incentive is the most flexible,” said Davis. Nine teachers expressed interest in the option, which is a one-time payment of $10,000, or up to five years of payments of $3,500, he said. The board is expected to vote on whether to pursue that plan at its April 24 meeting, he said. Assuming the board approves the measure and all nine interested teachers retire, some of those who received reduction-in-force notices earlier this spring may be eligible to return, if they qualify and if the positions vacated are in the areas in which they teach, Davis said. That would still produce a net savings, he said.

Davis said the total proposed budget has increased by $880,000 over last year’s budget, but that figure includes the potential $500,000 shift of retirement costs from the state onto the district. Davis and members of the board said uncertainty in the state budget process makes the process of producing the district budget difficult.
Board member Kate Brix said she would not vote to reduce programming or to reduce staff further. “I think they are at bare bones right now. We are giving a huge value to taxpayers. Everyone else in the surrounding area has a higher cost per pupil. I mean, how low can you go and still provide quality programming?” she said.

Effect on taxes

Board member Mike Duffy said if the board approves the budget as presented, the school taxes in Windham and Raymond would increase. Davis said this budget would increase Windham school taxes 4.47 percent over the current budget, and the Raymond school tax by 1.44 percent.
Duffy said, “I’d like to see it reduced, but I don’t want to see classroom teachers or staff reduced further.” He pointed to a $17,000 placeholder for a portable classroom and $30,000 for sidewalk construction as possible cuts. Duffy also suggested the district investigate a pay-to-participate scheme for athletics as a way to increase revenue.

Brix said she is sensitive to the tax rate, but if the board wanted the increase to be zero, the board should have given administration that directive from the start.

Board Chairman Catriona Sangster said, “All of the buildings are flat-funded, they’re down or slightly up with the exception of technology and curriculum.” She said the 12.6 percent increase in the technology budget concerns her. “I know that technology enhances our teachers’ ability to teach, but I really question whether we need one-to-one laptops down to the third grade rather than more teachers in front of students,” she said. The district is buying Mac laptops at $47 apiece, which she said is a good deal.

Board member Elizabeth Fillinger said the supply line of the Windham Primary School budget has been cut by $20,000. “The money still comes out of taxpayer pockets for the parents who are asked for supplies,” she said. “I don’t think they can cut it anymore, but I have no problem taking a peek and seeing what can be deferred.”

Marge Govoni, board Vice Chairman, agreed with Duffy. “I don’t think I could face people with the 4.74 percent,” she said. She said she views flat-funding as a sign that nobody gets a raise, but that she also wants to see the tax rate increase by a smaller amount.

Budget already tight

Board member Jeri Keane said, “The administration, the A-Team, and staff have worked incredibly hard to bring in a budget that is so incredibly responsible. To demoralize them by nickel-and-diming it would be bad. If it’s going to be different, it would have to be draconian.”

Sangster noted that classrooms are filling and supply lines are tight, while electives were being reduced at the high school.

Members of board debated whether to pick items to cut or ask the district to reduce it with a target tax rate in mind. Davis said, “We’ve vetted this budget since October. It’s better for you to give us some guidance and we’ll see what we can do. We may come back and say we can’t and ask you to find cuts.”

Sangster said she has been hearing of high school students who are changing their schedules for next year because electives have been removed, and from residents about large class sizes. She said there may be things the budget calls for that the district can hold off on another year. “Beyond that, I don’t think we can do much more. It’s a very responsible budget. It was very clear it was hard for administration to make cuts, but they supported the cuts. We had some public input, but not a lot, which tells me people did a good job trimming the fat,” said Sangster.

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