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Friday, January 13, 2012

Proposed budget cuts raise questions in Wilton

By Jessie Salisbury

Correspondent

WILTON – The Budget Committee wants to know what would the School Board do if its proposed 2012-13 budget was reduced by 5 percent – about $550,000 – and what would the effect be on education.

“What would the impact be if the budget were cut? How would the experts go about meeting that target?” Chairman Don Davidson said at a joint meeting of the School Board and Budget Committee on Jan. 4.

He emphasized that no decisions have been made, no votes taken, at this point, “but we have to optimize the costs in regard to the administration, the taxpayers and the students.”

A handful of residents attended the two-hour discussion at the high school.

The Budget Committee has asked the superintendent’s office to provide a priority list of the areas that would be cut and the impact on programs, “and it is the responsibility of officers to respond to the request so the Budget Committee can make informed decisions,” Davidson said. What he said he wanted was actual impacts, “not just opinions.”

School Board Vice Chairman Harry Daily said, with the reduction, “we would be looking at significant staff reductions. There is not a lot of fat in the budget.”

The board has a class size policy, and reducing staff would bring them close to the maximum, he said. The maximum class size is 25 students. Since high school grades average less than 50 students, in order to offer a wide range of subjects, many classes are very small.

Most of the cuts would have to be in personnel because much of the rest of the budget is “legal or contractual obligations,” Daily said. And, most of the staff cuts would be at the middle-high school level. Lyndeborough, for instance, has six teachers for six grades, and a cut there would mean double classes, which is against school policy.

“We have to look at the policies,” he said. “Do we want to change the way we manage the school? It takes the board to say we’ll relax graduation requirements to cut classes.” The current graduation requirement is 26 credits, while the state standard is 20 credits.

“Just give us a prioritized list,” Davidson said. “Tell us what you’d do so we can discuss if we’d be compromising the kids.”

The recent McCormick Facilities report, which assesses all buildings, was mentioned and the many future projects it suggested.

“We know about the McCormick report,” Davidson said. “That is why we are discussing only the operating budget” not capital outlays. “If you come back saying, ‘If we cut five teachers no one will graduate,’ that is information.”

The district has about 73 teachers, some of them part time. A reduction of 10 positions, all from the middle/high school would mean a reduction of more than 10 percent of the teachers.

Board Member Fran Bujak said. “If, hypothetically, the voters approved this reduction, we’d cut every bit of maintenance. All 18 of us (here) know that a $550,000 reduction will impact programs. Will we cut graduation requirements, cut the (Advance Placement) classes, put classes into the 25 student range, cut electives? I can appreciate your frustrations, but these things need to be studied.”

Davidson said, if the reduction was voted, “You’d have to do it. Tell us now what you’d do so we can assess it and see if we are compromising the kids. We want to hear it from the people who work here day by day.”

Board member Jim Button said, “We need to find a middle ground without drastically affecting the kids. A reduction in kids doesn’t automatically reduce the work load.”

Whitehill asked, “Why can’t the board be open to other things, to look at the system and do something different? Perhaps there are some potential changes.”

Daily said the requested reduction “seems arbitrary. You can’t cut a half million dollars out of the budget without making significant changes. It’s irresponsible to ask us how to adjust to a 5 percent cut. We are contractually obligated to supply a product (education).”

Superintendent Trevor Ebel said his staff had prepared the budget at the request of the School Board “and the board was satisfied with it. The SAU staff takes its direction from the School Board, not the Budget Committee. The board told me not to provide the information (how to address a cut).”

“I’d argue you work for the taxpayers of Wilton and Lyndeborough. The Budget Committee is empowered to request the information. Under the laws of the state, if the Budget Committee makes a reasonable request you are required to provide it. All we want is information so we can make intelligent decisions. What would be the impact to the people of the community?” Davidson said.

Daily said it couldn’t be done within the requested framework – having the prioritized list by the next joint meeting on Jan. 18.

“There would have to be policy changes,” he said.

Davidson asked, “Do we know unequivocally that is true, that it would require major changes? Provide us that information. We started this discussion over a year ago, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody.”

Daily asked when the committee had arrived at the 5 percent reduction figure. Davidson said, “Dec. 22, before Christmas break.”

Board Member Matt Ballou said the required changes, “will affect students’ ability to get into college … affect our ability to run this school. It could affect the accreditation of the school.”

“What we want is a plan to reduce the budget (request) by five percent. All I’ve heard is opinions, not a plan to debate if it is good or not. There is nothing hidden about the request. It was made to the superintendent with a copy to the board chair and vice chair,” Davidson said.

Dailey said it was a “matter of philosophy, cutting the high end and the low end. I ask you to re-assess that number.”

Several committee members suggested lowering the 5 percent goal, to two-and-a-half, or to the amount actually spent last year, or to a flat budget, but each suggestion failed to pass. The next regular meeting of the board was scheduled for Jan. 10. Dailey asked Ebel if he could have the information for that meeting, and he agreed to provide it.

The two boards will again meet jointly Jan. 18.

“I’d like to think we are all working together and are listening to each other,” Bujak said.