May 5, 2013

RSU 14 board approves budget by Leah Hoenen

The Board of Directors of RSU 14 has approved the district’s budget for the next fiscal year. The final budget was $149,700 less than the previous proposed version.

At $39,691,000, the budget the board accepted at its Wednesday, April 24 meeting is up 1.87 percent over the current budget and will lead to school tax increases of 4.74 percent in Windham and 1.44 percent in Raymond. At its previous meeting, the board had instructed district administrators to try to take $150,000 off the budget as proposed at that time, as many board members expressed concern over the effect of the budget on tax rates. 

Discussion of the budget included a debate about the disparity between student costs in Windham versus Raymond. Board member Toby Pennels cast the lone vote against the budget.

Changes in expenditures
Prior to voting on the budget, the board unanimously approved a measure to provide a financial incentive to staff members who have already reached retirement age. Nine teachers have taken the offer, giving the district a savings of $131,129 for the coming year, said Assistant Superintendent Donn Davis. 

Davis said some expenditures increased, as the high school restored a family and consumer science position and health insurance rates went up. But, dental insurance did not increase and the district reduced non-union pay increases from three percent to two percent and eliminated some redundancies in the budget, Davis said. The district found further savings by removing a portable classroom from the budget and examining tuition, he said. 

Board member Diana Froisland said she had been concerned about the tax increases, but had no suggestions of where else to reduce expenditures.
Board Vice Chairman Marge Govoni said she would also have liked to see greater reductions, but that she believed district administrators were sincere when they said they had done all they could to reduce spending.

Debate about Raymond spending
As board members discussed changes that had taken place in the budget since they last met, board member Toby Pennels gave the board a paper showing spending disparities between Windham and Raymond.

“I am not going to support this budget at the levels it’s at,” he said, saying some items are alarming and disappointing. He said Windham residents have seen their taxes go up by 20 percent over three years, while Raymond residents are paying 0.5 percent more over the same time period. Pennels said the union of the two towns’ schools is “a bad business relationship.”

“We’ve got huge discrepancies in what Windham is paying in tax increases versus Raymond,” he said, noting that Jordan Small Middle School is an under-utilized building. 

Pennels said the budget as proposed has the district pay 41 percent more for a student in Raymond than for a student in Windham.

Board Chairman Catriona Sangster said she didn’t know the board would receive the handout, so she didn’t have a response prepared, but that enrollment in Raymond buildings is lower. She also said that the district has tried to balance enrollment between schools in the two towns. “There was an initiative taken and that was voted down by this board,” she said. 

Board member Kate Brix said she appreciated the information, but questioned the timing. “This came out of left field and we have a vote here on a budget. The timing is inappropriate,” she said. “I’m not contesting the importance of this,” said Brix, “I’m questioning the process.”

Brix said the district has been working on a budget since October, and the numbers presented were something the board should have talked about before.
Board member Mike Duffy said the differences in costs between the two towns are not surprising because the district provides services to a fewer number of students in Raymond. “We do have to look out for the students. As of right now, I think it’s a very responsible budget that’s been presented,” he said.

Govoni responded to the handout saying the board has already discussed ways to equalize costs. “It didn’t set well with staff and people in the district. We’ve talked about sending Windham kids to Raymond,” she said. “We’ve done this. The board voted the last one down.”

Duffy said perhaps the suggestions already discussed were not the right solution.

Pennels said the numbers come across as Windham subsidizing Raymond, but board member Jeri Keane said she thought the numbers would show Raymond pays its fair share. 

Sangster said, “I’m voted [for] by the Raymond public and I represent their district, but I represent the interests of Windham-Raymond.” She said the discussion over spending was a much larger issue than the budget being voted on. “This is finance, facilities, governmental relationships. We can’t begin to tackle those issues tonight,” she said.

Uncertainty about state action
Board member Mike Duffy noted that the state education committee had voted that retirement costs should not be shifted to local school districts – the RSU 14 budget contains $500,000 for those expenses, should the state decide to shift a portion of retirement costs to the local districts.

Davis said money in the budget that was not needed is normally put into a separate account and could be used to reduce taxation later or to ameliorate the effect of a bigger budget in coming years. The money would not be spent without board authorization, he said.

Because the legislature has not yet approved the state budget, Davis said the district would present new financial information to the board as it becomes available later in the year.

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