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Voters Attempt $200K Cut From School Budget

Seven-article warrant goes through to April 10 ballot unchanged.

The school district warrant will be put forward to the April 10 ballot as presented Tuesday night at the school deliberative session, though a small contingent of voters did attempt to amend the budget by $200,000.

The discussion about the amendment spanned about half the hour and 40 minute meeting that was attended by fewer than 100 members of the community.

Made by Erik Peterson, the amendment requested $200,000 be removed from the budget, to account for money that could be saved by a transportation bid for busing that is about 10 percent lower than expected.

Resident Dennis King spoke in favor of the amendment pointing to residents who are losing their homes due to the economy and high tax bills. King said he thought the $200,000 could be removed from the budget, saying that should the need arise to spend the money, it was a small enough amount that the school board could find that money somewhere else as it has before. At the same time, King argued that the number was big enough that it would adversely affect residents in town who were struggling to pay bills.

School District Business Administrator Matt Shevenell said pulling the $200,000 from the budget would have an effect of only $14 per person on their annual tax bill.

Tricia Swonger spoke against the amendment and decried King's suggestion of cut and shuffle as a viable budgeting option as opposed to creating a budget that carries specific values for various line items. King's suggestion points to a manner of budgeting where a bottom line is developed and administrators simply need to spend within their limits, she said.

“To budget in that manner is irresponsible” Swonger said. “... There's a reason we don't do that. It's not prudent, it's not proper. It's bad accounting, it's irresponsible accounting.”

A similar amendment, was made at the budget committee's final work session, but failed to pass muster because the school board and transportation company that made the bid had signed no contract.

That remained true as of Tuesday night. Though it's possible the final bid and contract may be $200,000 less than what's budgeted, nothing has been made official, School Board Chairwoman Jody Vaillancourt said.

It's for that primary reason that Vaillancourt, board member Shannon Barnes and Vice Chairman Chris Ortega all encouraged voters to defeat the amendment.

Each spoke to the value of leaving the money in budget in the instance that something unforeseen happened with the bid.

Barnes said a need to cut the budget further was unnecessary. She called it a “prudent budget” and one that respects the needs of the staff and students in the district that was carefully vetted for the taxpayers.

Vaillancourt added that the school board, when it was faced with more than $600,000 needed to repair the roof at JMUES, directed administrators to go back and find where that money could be made up. They did and the budget still came in along a level line with the 2011-12 budget.

Ortega pointed out that should the $200,000 not be needed, it will be returned to taxpayers next year. But, he said given how little an impact the amount had on the overall budget, he didn't think it was a bad idea to have some money there in the instance that something changes with the bid.

Further, School Board member George Markwell said removing the $200,000 from the budget removes it from the bottom line, not that particular line in question. This means it would be likely that money could shuffled around to accommodate a cut but that $200,000 could remain in the transportation budget.

The amendment failed by a show of voter cards and the $65.5 million budget will be voted on as-is come April.

The remainder of the articles on the warrant went through smoothly with no attempts to change them.

Article 6, drew some attention for both sides of the argument and ultimately was passed along to the ballot unchanged to allow the voters who go to the polls to make the final decision.

Former Town Councilor Tim Tenhave, who proposed the article, stated several reasons for which he believes the Budget Committee should be disbanded. These reasons included the ways in which it drags out the budget season and the lack of power it has to make measurable changes to the budget, as reasons why voters should support the plan that would eliminate the committee.

Tenhave also pointed out a lack of interest seen to fill out the 12-member board could be considered as the committee having passed its prime. Six open seats this year have just two candidates, he said.

Dennis King said he was ambivalent about the committee as it seems to make sense on the surface. But King told the School Board he thought they do a good job and could see the committee as simply duplicating a process that is working.

“I think at this point, if voters decide to get rid of the budget committee, I won't really miss it and I don't think the voters will either,” King said.

Vaillancourt spoke in favor of the article, calling the budget committee's process “redundant, at best.”

She said she was very much in favor of the committee when it began, but after having sat through many a budget committee meeting, she's seen very little significant change made to the budget, but a number of attempts to change aspects that would affect policy, which isn't in the budget committee's purview.

Former Town Councilor Mike Malzone had a different reason for supporting the disbanding of the group. He said he does not approve of the budget committee in general because, though elected, the members of the committee aren't vetted the same way the school board members are.

Stan Heinrich a member of the budget committee spoke in favor of retaining the committee (in opposition to the article), saying that each committee member brings individual ideas to the table and that they don't take up an extraordinary amount of time from administrators when they come to present their budgets.

Heinrich said he's been volunteering his time on boards and committees in town since 1987 and is happy to continue to do so.

Ultimately, the article went through to the April ballot, and voters will make the decision to keep or disband the committee at the polls.

Other articles going through to the ballot unchanged are:

  •  Article 1: To elect necessary officers for the school year. 
  • Article 2: To authorize the school board to accept property gifted to the district without further action from the voters during the fiscal year.
  • Article 3: that gives those employees a 2.75 percent raise each year for the next three years but makes major health care concessions, and if approved, would reduce the operating budget by more than $180,000 in the first year of the contract.
  • Article 4: To authorize the School Board to call one special meeting to address the collective bargaining agreement in Article 3 should it fail.
  • Article 5: To raise $110,000 to reconstruct and expand the parking lot at Reeds Ferry Elementary School. The actual new cost to the voters through this article would be $45,000 as $65,000 would come from the Merrimack School District Pavement Reconstruction Capital Reserve Fund.
Matt Publicover March 08, 2012 at 01:43 AM
I think this is a fair and accurate rendering of the meeting last night, Carolyn, except for one comment: "School District Business Administrator Matt Shevenell said pulling the $200,000 from the budget would have an effect of only $14 per person on their annual tax bill." "Only" implies $14 is insignificant. Whether $14 is insignificant or not is a matter of opinion, and I do not believe Matt Shevenell said "only." I believe he answered the question simply and factually, without adding that element of personal opinion. Mr. Shevenell is a consummate professional, and in my experience, can be relied upon for unbiased accuracy, leaving it to the board members and the public to grapple with personal opinions. While some people may have found last night's discussions tedious, I found it to be one of Merrimack's better examples of polite dialogue. Opposing positions were debated, but no one lost their cool, no name-calling or jeers were heard. For once, we were able to disagree civilly. Let's hope we are so fortunate next Tuesday at the Town Deliberative!

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