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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Plan for new Merrimack School District building loses; budget OK’d

MERRIMACK – Voters across the Merrimack School District found common ground Tuesday, agreeing on the need for a new central office building. But they differed on when the town could afford the project. A ballot question sought initial funding for the new administrative building, proposed to be built next to Merrimack High School on McElwain Drive.

Voters agreed the current office, constructed as private residences, have grown aged and outdated since they were built in 1963.

“It’s in really rough shape,” said resident Linda Jamro, who voted in favor of the article, which calls for up to $200,000 to go into a new capital reserve fund for the project. ”I don’t know how they work out of there.”

Opponents of the project maintained that the current recession makes a new building an unneeded luxury, despite the deteriorating condition of the current facilities. They won at the polls, defeating the measure with 1,145 in favor and 1,858 opposed.

“I would have liked to say yes. The building’s in bad shape, but these are not the times to be spending money we don’t have,” said Evelyn Gaudette, who voted against the project. “Maybe when the economy gets better.”

Among other matters, voters chose between incumbent School Board member Roy Swonger and challenger George Markwell for the board’s only open seat, and they weighed in on a new contract for district teachers. Markwell won with 1,344 votes to Swonger’s 1,268

The two-year pact, which passed with 1,812 in favor and 1,246 opposed, will provide a 2.75 percent raise each year to the teachers union’s 375 members, and it will reduce the district’s health insurance costs, according to district administrators.

“If they’re going to pay more for their benefits, they’re going to need bigger paychecks,” said Sharon Boudreau, who voted in favor of the contract.

Finally, residents voted on the district’s $65.3 million budget proposal, which passed 2,124 to 867.

The spending plan, which is about 2 percent higher than the current year’s $64.2 million budget, would set the School District portion of the local tax rate at about $12.64 per $1,000 of assessed value – 57 cents higher than the current rate.

As it stands now, the budget proposal would cut eight positions. With further state cuts looming, district administrators are already adding to the district cutting block.

Gov. John Lynch’s state budget proposal, introduced earlier this year, could cost the district upward of $2 million in state funding. As a result, district administrators sent pinks slips last week to 14 staff members, including six paraprofessionals, two school psychologists and a high school French teacher.

Administrators could cut more positions, depending on the outcome of the state’s budget deliberations, or they could restore the jobs if funding becomes available, administrators have said.

The budget residents voted on Tuesday “doesn’t include any of the cuts we’ve been discussing,” said Jennifer Thornton, the School Board’s vice chairwoman. “We don’t know how things will shape out in June. … We’re really just beginning this process.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or