Final Proposed School Budget Up 1.64%

January 31, 2014

by Barbara O’Brien

The budget season for the Windham School District was a tough one, involving a lot of haggling, pencil sharpening and prioritizing.  The goal?  To come up with a 2014-2015 budget that voters would be willing to approve.  “We have made an enormous attempt to keep the budget reasonable and still provide an excellent education,” SAU 95 Superintendent Winfried Feneberg told the small group of residents who turned out for the January 17 public hearing at Windham High School.  In fact, only a paltry 15 residents were scattered throughout the audience, despite the $45,724,106 budget under discussion.

Not all of the five school board members were happy with the final proposal, however.  Newest board member Dennis Senibaldi, who was elected this past March, said he felt the operating budget could be reduced further.  While Senibaldi said he supports the two proposed contracts (teacher and instructional aides), he was not in favor of the proposed restructuring of the deans at Windham High School; a plan that would create several new directorship positions instead.  On several occasions, including statements at the budget hearing, Senibaldi said that he felt “the pencil” had not been sharpened quite enough.  As a result, Senibaldi did not vote to support the proposed operating budget for the 2014-2015 school year, which begins on July 1.

Business Administrator Adam Steel said that 70 percent of the proposed budget increase (1.64%) is due to salaries and benefits, 10 percent to special education tuition, an additional school bus, various contracted services and seven new positions, including: a half-time preschool teacher, one fourth grade teacher, a business education teacher, a seventh grade teacher, a half-time television production coordinator for the high school, an intervention mathematics teacher at Windham Middle School and additional secretarial hours at Golden Brook School.  “There was a much longer list of what is really needed,” Feneberg said.  “Administration in this district is very lean.”

“We have looked at any and all places where we can make do with what we’ve got,” Feneberg commented.  “This budget has been whittled down over the process these past couple of months,” he said.  According to statistics presented during the budget hearing, the impact of the operating budget alone on the 2014 tax rate could be about 35 cents per $1,000 property valuation.  This translates into about $123 in additional taxes on property assessed at $350,000.

The establishment of several new directors and the related elimination of the deans is an integral segment of realigning the curriculum, district-wide, Feneberg explained.  The directors would be implemented over a two-year phased in approach.  The precise cost of the changes is not currently known.  The price tag would depend on who applies for the positions.  The cost could be anywhere between $30,000 and $107,000, based on information discussed at the budget hearing.  Feneberg said that the $107,000 impact “would be the worst case scenario.”  The new directors would not be members of the Windham Education Association, although their positions would include teaching duties, as well as mentoring other teachers in their areas of expertise.  The directors would work year-round under the new proposal.  In response to an innuendo posed by Senibaldi, Feneberg emphasized that he had “not promised anyone any of these positions.”  “This will be a fair process,” Feneberg said.  “We want to hire the best people we possibly can.”

As for the anticipated enrollment for the 2014-2015 school year, projections indicate that the student population will increase overall by about 21 students.  However, there are also indications that the enrollment in kindergarten and first grade might decline from the current year’s numbers.  “I get very nervous about these numbers,” Vice Chair Stephanie Wimmer said, referring to the enrollment in kindergarten and first grade.  “We’re watching them very closely,” Feneberg responded.  “These numbers are very volatile.”

Perhaps because the other four school board members voted to support the proposed operating budget for the upcoming school year, Senibaldi continued to chastise them for what he claimed was not enough time spent preparing that budget.  He also complained that information pertaining to the proposed budget had not been sufficiently disseminated to the public.  Senibaldi compared the budget making process to a game of charades.  School board member Jerome Rekart took exception with Senibaldi, offering support for the director positions.  This is a best practice, to have educators educating educators employing their individual expertise to help others improve, Rekart said.  “We are undermanned,” Rekart said.  “This is not a charade!”  Chairman Michael Joanis said he is very excited about making changes that will benefit the curriculum across-the-board.  “I am very excited about making this commitment to an excellent education for all students,” Joanis said.  Senibaldi complained that he felt “disrespected” by some other board members because of his differing opinions.  Joanis said he welcomed diverse opinions and feels they promote healthy discussion.

At the conclusion of the hearing, information on the possible tax impact was calculated.  If everything on the school district warrant should pass voter scrutiny this coming March (operating budget, teacher contract, instructional aide contract and roof repairs), there will be an 81 cent rise per $1,000 on the 2014 tax rate.  This translates to approximately $283 additional taxes on property assessed at $350,000.  If the roof repairs are not included, the tax rate would go up by about 61 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation or $213 on property assessed at $350,000.  The roof repairs are included in the town’s capital improvement program, but there is the possibility that they could be paid for out of the current year’s fund balance, which includes money that was received as a rebate from health and dental insurance premiums.

The Windham School District will hold its annual deliberative session on Friday, February 7, beginning at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at Windham High School.  Residents must be registered voters to participate in the session.