Proposed School Budget Reduced

December 13, 2013
 
by Barbara O’Brien

Windham School District administrators went back to the drawing board, sharpened their pencils and came back to school board members with a proposal that is $582,000 less than the proposed 2014-2015 operating budget brought forth late last month.  The new proposed amount represents a 1.64 percent increase over the current year’s school district operating budget.  Before these reductions, the increase was about 2.98 percent higher than the current 2013-2014 budget.  These statistics do not include any separate warrant articles, including possible teacher and instructional aide contracts.

According to SAU 95 Business Administrator Adam Steel, the latest proposed 2014-2015 operating budget for the school district totals $44,248,731, an increase of $714,503 (1.64%) over this year’s proposal.  Taking into account that, this year, the Windham School District is operating on a default budget, because voters did not approve the proposed budget last March, the increase in what is proposed for next year is only 1.1 percent over this year’s default budget.  Should next year’s proposed budget not pass this coming March, the resulting default budget would be $43,440,562 (a decrease of .22 percent from the current year’s default budget).

Based on information provided by Steel, the total proposed increase to the general fund portion of the budget would have an estimated 2014 tax impact of 35 cents per $1,000 assessed property valuation or an increase in taxes of $123 on property assessed at $350,000.  Again, this does not include any separate contracts, warrant articles or budgetary increases on the town side of the ledger.

Steel explained that the proposed budget for 2014-2015 is comprised of 70 percent salaries and benefits, with an additional 10 percent for contract services, including special education tuition.  School officials have no leeway on funding these items.  Additionally, administrators are proposing the first phase of a two-year replacement of the “dean” structure at Windham High School, one additional home-to-school bus and seven new or expanded positions to address the needs of students at all four Windham Schools and the affiliated pre-school program.

Enrollment projections compiled November 5, 2013, were used for budgeting purposes.  District-wide enrollment on October 1 of this year was 2,826 students.  The projected increase for next year is 21 students, up to a total of 2,847.  The two grades with the greatest projected increase are kindergarten and first grade.  Administrators say they will be monitoring these enrollment figures closely in the upcoming months to determine if further action might be necessary regarding teacher assignments at each of these levels.

Following Steel’s presentation on the revised proposal for next year, school board member Dennis Senibaldi wanted to know where the $582,000 in cuts had been made from what was proposed last month.  Steel said he and the other administrators focused on critical needs regarding classroom staffing.  They also put priority on the half-time cable television production position for Windham High School, a math intervention specialist for Windham Middle School and a part-time secretarial position.

Senibaldi was not pleased that priority was being given to positions other than teaching staff.  Senibaldi said he feels that a case manager (guidance) “outweighs TV production staff.”  “One of our primary jobs as a school district is to get our message out to the community,” Steel said, defending the cable television staffing position.  “Not too many people actually watch Channel 20, anyway,” Senibaldi said, raising the ire of cable committee member and videographer Barbara Coish, who is also a former school board member.  A large amount of money has been donated to Windham High School through the cable committee to enhance broadcasting and programming capabilities for the fledgling operation.

“We’ve been making baby steps with TV programming at the high school,” Coish said, noting that the purpose of the programming at Windham High “is all for the kids.”  “The kids will be doing it themselves,” she explained.  “It could very well define their futures.”  I’d still rather see teaching positions added,” Senibaldi said.  “We’re not horse-trading here,” Vice Chairman Stephanie Wimmer said.  “We’re trying to do what’s best for the kids.”  It was explained by administrators that the proposed television production employee (a half-time position) would also be teaching related courses directly to students.  “This staff member would be involved with very impassioned students, who would be in the studio 24/7, if possible,” Windham High School Principal Ryan Kaplan emphasized.

School board member Jerome Rekart, who stated that he felt it was quite obvious that administrators had sharpened their pencils in tackling a reduction in the original proposal, wanted to know what would happen if the proposed budget doesn’t pass this coming March.  Increased class sizes would be the most likely result was the consensus.  Windham schools are already over-crowded and seriously short on space.  A couple dozen additional students would only worsen that scenario.  Rekart also wanted to know if there was any merit to proposing additional teaching positions through separate warrant articles, rather than in the operating budget.  Superintendent Winfried Feneberg, who is traversing his first budget season in Windham, said he wouldn’t recommend separate warrant articles.  “It’s not advisable,” Feneberg said.  “It really splinters the budget process.”  Wimmer said she believes it would put “handcuffs” on school board members and administrators if a specific teaching position was voted down through a separate warrant article and then it was later found how much that teacher was needed.  “No means no,” Wimmer said, if a specific proposal is turned down by voters.

SAU administrators said that principals and other staff at individual schools were in agreement with budget proposals for next year.  Senibaldi, who claimed he frequently speaks with these individuals privately, said he doesn’t believe school employees would “be foolish enough” to disagree with the administration.  Senibaldi’s comment did not sit well with others at the SAU table.

Windham resident and parent, Diane Carpenter, said she believes that the major emphasis for this coming year’s proposal must be the operating budget and the two contracts (teacher and instructional aides).  She urged school board members to put other issues on the back burner for now.  “We are nothing without our teachers,” Carpenter said.  “They are the key to our success overall.”