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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Merrimack School District voters make final plans

MERRIMACK – A lengthy back-and-forth over a proposed amendment to cut by $200,000 the bottom line of the School District’s proposed 2012-13 operating budget and a shorter, but equally passionate, discussion on whether to do away with the school Budget Committee dominated the district’s Deliberative Session on Tuesday night.

About 20 of the more than 100 residents who gathered in the Mastricola Upper Elementary School gym rose to speak on either the budget or Article 6, the petition warrant article asking voters to reconsider the 2006 measure that established the 12-member Budget Committee.

In the end, the proposed amendment to reduce the budget was defeated by a roughly 2-1 margin on a show of hands vote. Article 6 also went on the March 13 ballot unaltered.

The only other article to draw comment was Article 3, which asks voters to consider the recent agreement between the district and the Merrimack Educational Support Staff Association, a three-year package that reflects a roughly $188,400 reduction in costs over the first year. A change in health benefits is behind the savings, School Board Chairwoman Jodie Vaillancourt said.

“Passing an article that reduces the operating budget by $188,000 is, to me, a win-win situation,” Vaillancourt said. “I’d much rather see the money go to our employees rather than the (health) insurance companies.”

The amendment to reduce the operating budget by $200,000 is tied to the roughly $293,000 proposed increase in student transportation, a figure that many speakers described as almost nothing in the context of an overall $65.4 million budget.

A bit of number-crunching showed the $200,000 decrease would save taxpayers about $14 per year, a figure that was alternately described as a “good place to start” and “such a tiny amount it doesn’t matter over an entire year.”

Others disagreed, saying every penny counts to people who are struggling and even losing their homes because of the economy. But resident Evan Fulmer, even as someone who has lost his home after losing his job, spoke against the amendment.

“Yes, I lost my home, but you know what – $14 a year wouldn’t have made a bit of difference,” he said. “I’d much rather see the kids be transported to school safely.”

As for the article on the future of the Budget Committee, which is charged with reviewing and finalizing the School Board’s budget proposal before it goes to Deliberative Session, those who favor eliminating the committee say it only drags out the budgeting process, adding unnecessary time and costs.

“It adds between four and six weeks to the whole process,” said Tim Tenhave, a former town councilor who introduced the petitioned warrant article. “Its powers are very limited. It can make recommendations, yes, but it can only deal with the bottom line. It has no more power than the voters do.”

Tenhave contends also that having the committee in the mix forces the School Board to do their budget process in December, when most people are distracted by the holidays. “It’s my contention it’s just not a necessary body,” he said.

Others, like Mike Malzone, said the vetting process for Budget Committee members is much looser than that for other elected officials. “Personally, that’s why I’m against having the committee; we don’t know if those named to it are taxpayers, whether their spouses are teachers, anything.”

Still, Malzone said, the matter should go to voters. “I think it’s important to put this on the ballot for people to decide this year. I believe now is time to decide.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or