City and school officials review proposed education budget
NASHUA – Ahead of a public hearing on the city budget next week, members of the Board of Education and Board of Aldermen budget committees met Thursday to review the education budget for 2017.
Representing the Nashua School District was Superintendent Mark Conrad, Chief Operating Officer Dan Donovan and board member George Farrington.
“As you know we have a very tight budget,” Conrad said, noting the school board made changes to his proposed budget, adjusting for technology needs, resources for reading on grade level and substance abuse counselors. “I would note the budget I provided to the board was pretty lean,” he said.
Conrad proposed a budget that was 2.7 percent over the 2016 budget, with a list of recommended reductions to bring the projected increase down to 2.2 percent. At $105.1 million, the 2017 education budget proposed by the school board represented a 2.68 percent increase over the 2016 budget. The board’s budget is a net decrease of $95,810 from the superintendent’s proposed budget, but $694,831 over the mayor’s budget cap of 2 percent.
Speaking to items driving costs in the 2017 budget, Conrad, Donovan and Farrington talked about the need for substance abuse counseling, special education costs, maintenance and built-in contract increases.
Conrad emphasized the need for more student support, particularly in the area of substance-abuse counselors – something the board and administration agree must be addressed in light of the addiction epidemic in the city and state..
“This reflects a substance abuse crises that, quite frankly, in our schools affects our students more from having family members being addicted than from the students themselves,” he said. The strain of the opioid crises in the community explains why some students arrive at school not ready to learn, he said.
For transportation, the Nashua district supports seven bus routes for city charter schools and another bus was added for special education students, he said.
“If you look at the greatest area of additional resources, it is in special education,” said Conrad, explaining that there are legal mandates for serving children with disabilities. “These are students who are the most vulnerable in our community,” he said. “We have increasing number of students who have full-time nurses with them in the classroom.”
The alternative is an increase in out-of-district placement, he said.
“We spend a significant amount of money for the placement of out-of-district students, so what is that money now?” said Richard Dowd, city alderman.
Donovan said the total cost is $4.4 million to send students out of district. “We’re pretty lucky in only three of them are residential,” he said, noting residential programs can cost $100,000-$200,000 per year, “Most of them are not residential, so the cost range is $40,000 to $80,000 per student,” Donovan said.
Alderman Michael O’Brien asked about substitute teacher wages in Nashua, and Donovan said the budget proposes bumping substitute pay from $65 to $68 per day, adding $40,000 to the budget.
“The reason we did that is we do have a real shortage of substitute teachers in our schools,” Conrad said.
Alderman Ken Siegel asked about the low building and grounds maintenance line item, which is $200,000 for the 2017 budget. Conrad said that, ideally, the line item would be about $600,000.
“Is it enough to keep up with all the maintenance, certainly not,” Donovan said.
Dowd said if typical ongoing maintenance projects were done, they wouldn’t have to be bonding maintenance projects.
“No arguments here, we agree,” Farrington said, adding that the money is being used in the budget to support education. “Given the educational needs, it just falls down that list of priorities,” he said.
Conrad said the major impending maintenance issue stems from the two high schools, both of which have gone about 15 years since major renovations.
“They are going to start to fail at the same time because they were built within two years of each other,” Conrad said. He said the two schools represent one-third of the total square footage in the district.
“I’m glad the more egregious problems are getting addressed, especially at Mount Pleasant, because we don’t want people getting sick,” Siegel said, referring to reports of poor ventilation and other problems in the school. In response to the reports, the board previously approved money to install air conditioning units in classrooms.
The discussion prepared education and city officials for the hearing Thursday, which will take place at Nashua High School North.
Lastly, city aldermen thanked Conrad for his service to the city, since he announced plans to resign this August.
“The budget shortfalls … you always seem to make it work, Mr. Conrad, and I appreciate that about you,” said Alderman Lori Wilshire. “We’re going to miss you here in the city. Really what we’re fighting here is the spending cap and the retirement costs.”
Additional background and updates on the education budget can be found online at www.nashua.edu/about-us/board-of-education/fy-2017-budget.
Tina Forbes can be reached at 594-6402, tforbes@nashuatelegraph. com or @Telegraph_TinaF.