Warrant Articles Pass the Litchfield School Board Deliberative Session

February 10, 2017

 

 

by Tom Tollefson

As the New Year has begun so has the preparation for the Litchfield School District’s budget for next fiscal year, which officially begins on July 1, 2017.  The eight warrant articles remain unaltered after the Litchfield School Board Annual Deliberative Session (open to the public) held at Campbell High School last Saturday.  These warrant articles will be on the ballot for the town vote on Tuesday, March 14.

Many of the residents at the deliberative session believed in leaving the warrant articles as written to let the voters decide next month.

“Let the people vote.  Don’t let this room decide for the entire town,” Litchfield resident and teacher Robin Corbeil said.

The budget for next year’s school department totals to $21,827,223.  This number comes after the budget committee made multiple cuts after reviewing each line of the budget over a succession of five meetings in the months of November and December.  The budget committee’s cuts totaled a budget $443,110 leaner than originally proposed by the school board.  According to the budget committee, the projected tax increase for the final budget is 1.41 percent with a tax impact of an increase of 42 cents.  This would translate to a tax increase of $147 increase on a house valued at $350,000 in Litchfield.

This year’s budget totals an increase of $288,383 from last year.  The school board and budget committee have pointed to several factors in the increase.  Health insurance has increased by 9.5 percent, New Hampshire retirement rates have increased for employees and teachers by $149,917, transportation has increased by $24,670 and technology services have increased by $137,205 for computer purchases to help with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and other programs.  Special Services have also increased by $118,726.  There have also been some reductions in the budget from last year’s line items.  Salaries, utilities and textbooks have all decreased by a total of $285,335.

One of the more heavily discussed topics of the deliberative session was moving funds in the district for special education.  Article 6 would add up to $100,000 of the remaining unspent funds from the budget at the end of the year into the Special Education Capital Reserve Fund, which currently has a balance of $104,210.10.  The money in this fund would be used strictly for additional special education costs that come up during the year and are not budgeted for already.  These costs do not include salaries and benefits.  Currently there is an estimated $68,000 projected in under-spent money this year in special education funding.  The school board expressed concern that new students moving into town who qualify for special education services could require more unbudgeted costs.  In the past, additional costs have come up during the year with the addition of new students who qualify for special education services.

The budget committee did not vote in favor of adding money to the Special Education Capital Reserve because they had no major cuts in special education and believe the funds already in the capital reserve would be enough to help with costs going forward.

Adding unspent money into the reserve fund will not increase taxes.  These funds have already been budgeted from the previous year.  If this warrant article does not pass, then any unspent money in the budget will go back into the general fund and give a reduction on next year’s taxes.

Litchfield resident Bill Spencer made a motion to change the warrant article to moving up to $0 in unspent money into the Special Education Capital Reserve Fund at the end of the year.  Spencer didn’t believe there was enough of a need for the funding and thought it should go back into the general fund to offset taxes for next year.

“The existing reserve fund has been in existence for 10 years or more at least and never had to be touched,” Spencer said.

Spencer’s motion failed for a lack of support.  Several residents again spoke up against changing the warrant articles before voting day.  They believe it should be up to the democracy of the town as the voters make the final decisions on the warrant articles either way in March.

Articles 7 and 8 would also give a use for unused funding.  Article 7, if passed would move up to $50,000 of unused money to the Building Maintenance Capital Reserve Fund and Article 8 would add up to $25,000 to the Technology Capital Reserve Fund for purchasing and replacing hardware, software, and other technology components.  Warrant Article 5 would approve $61,645 to improve security for district schools with fences around the portable buildings, film on the windows, and additional security cameras.

The approval of these articles involve only adding unspent funds from this past year.  However, if any unspent money is voted against putting into the various capital reserves, that money would then by default go back into the school department’s general fund to help offset taxes for the next fiscal year.

Salaries were another topic of interest in Warrant Articles 2 and 3.  The Litchfield School District has compared their average salaries with those of other local towns such as Hudson, Derry and Pelham.  According to School Board Vice Chairman Derek Barka, Litchfield is currently 5 to 6 percent behind market value.  Warrant Article 2 will give staffing salaries an increase of $282,018 in 2017-2018 and $293,644 in 2018-2019.

During the deliberative session, Barka explained the breakdown of step increases based on education and experience that determine the salaries of teachers in the district.  According to Barka, there have been several times during the past decade where teachers did not get an increase in their steps.  The budget will schedule increases for salaries.  For example, the starting salary for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience will increase from $36,517 to $38,500 and a teacher with a master’s degree and 30 years of experience will adjust from a salary of $67,191 to $69,316.

“These adjustments to the salary schedule will give our existing staff increases we believe they deserve and also make that schedule a little more competitive so that as we try to attract talent we are in a better position to do so,” Barka said.

While Warrant Article 2 provided increases for the current staffing levels, Warrant Article 3 seeks to give increase in salaries and benefits to the support staff.  The support staff is made up of paraprofessionals, who are in the classroom to give additional support to students who qualify for special education.  The increase for 2017 to 2018 will be $62,787 and $57,662.  Some of this increase will also cover professional development for the support staff.

“They’re instrumental in their education and in the classroom, as teachers cannot provide one-on-one support to 20-something kids,” said Litchfield resident Nathalie Hirte who has a son with special needs who she stated has benefited from the aide of paraprofessionals.

Warrant Article 4 would add $92,885 to the operating budget to fund the salary and benefits for a full-time Special Services Coordinator position to support the Special Services Director and Special Services Department.  This position would help with the many administrative tasks that are legally required for special education.  Currently, twenty-five percent of the Litchfield student population is identified with an IEP (Individual Educational Plan).