Souhegan’s cost per pupil causes clash; enrollment on the decline, budget up by 2 percent

AMHERST – Those who believe Souhegan High School’s cost per pupil is too high and those who are worried that budget cutting has gone to far clashed at the Souhegan Cooperative School District Deliberative Session on Monday night.

The school’s proposed $18 million budget to support the Amherst-Mont Vernon school next year reflects $608,000 worth of staff cuts that include teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators.

Despite the cuts, the budget is up by 2 percent, mainly because of increases in health insurance, special education tuition, transportation costs and other mandatory increases.

Linda Kaiser, of Amherst, proposed an amendment, which ultimately failed, to cut the budget’s bottom line by about 3 percent, saying it has gone up over the last seven years while enrollment has declined.

"I went to school with 30-35 kids in class, and I did fine," she said.

On the other side was Peggy Silva, a founding member of the 25-year-old school, who said a high teacher-student ratio burdens teachers.

There were 50 students in her grammar school class, she said, and that "was not very good."

Margaret McCabe, of Amherst, said staff numbers are still too high and questioned a $139,000 item for career-technical transportation for about 14 students.

Others repeated the complaint that the budget isn’t sensitive enough to struggling taxpayers, while Rick Katzenberg, of Amherst, was applauded for saying enrollments have actually been ‘fairly stable," and that 51 students who didn’t go through the elementary and middle school have come here because it’s an excellent high school and homes are increasing in value.

Mike Akillian, of the
citizens group Working for Great Schools, repeated his often-made contention that Hollis and Bedford high schools have significantly lower costs per pupil, while getting "equal or better outcomes."

There was a lot of discussion about what costs should be included in cost-per-student numbers. School Board Chairwoman Mary Lou Mullins told the audience that comparisons between schools aren’t fair and that the state Department of Education warns against them.

Critics are "cherry-picking" information to support their claims, she said.

After Margaret McCabe said Souhegan’s costs are greater than Bedford’s because Souhegan has too many staff members and pays too much, Ellen Grudzien, of the district’s Advisory Finance Committee, called them "alternative facts."

And the trend toward budget cutting, she said, burdens children, teachers and administrator.

Several parents, some of whom moved to Amherst because of the high school, praised the school.

An article for $94,500 worth of wage increases for professional and support staff, based on a one-year agreement, passed onto the ballot with little discussion.

So did a $150,000 warrant article for paving the parking lot and driveway and another one for a building maintenance fund.

The estimated tax impact of the budget and all warrant articles is 49 cents for an average home, valued at $352,000, in Amherst and $1.03 for a house valued at $300,000 in Mont Vernon. That brings the tax rate to support the school to $172.48 for that average Amherst house and $309 for an average Mont Vernon house.

The final vote will be at the polls on March 14, the second part of the two-part voting process.

The Budget Committee had voted 7-0 to support the budget, but the school board was divided, 5-2.

The two dissenting board members, both from Amherst, took some criticism. Dwayne Purvis said he had questions about curriculum, and David Chen said on the whole it’s a fair budget, but he doesn’t like the fact that the budget is up while enrollments are down.

In 2009, the school had 891 students enrolled, and this year the number is 831. The trend is expected to continue, with 700 students estimated for 2020.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@nashuatelegraph.com