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Board Likes Claremont School Budget

Claremont — School Board members appear willing to back a proposed $32.3 million budget that carries a tax increase of more than 70 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation while also seeking voter approval for a bond article to renovate Stevens High School at an estimated cost of $13 million

The combined estimated tax increase, which is not final, is moving board chairman Richard Seaman to wonder if they should rethink their budget priorities given the overriding importance of the bond for Stevens.

“Are we comfortable that this is the direction we want the budget to go,” Seaman asked at last night’s school board meeting. “I would hate to see us lose this opportunity (for Stevens) if we have the ability to level fund the amount to be raised by taxes (in the budget).”

The budget proposal, as it now stands, would increase the amount to be raised by taxes about $425,000 to $13.1 million.

The board did not finalize the proposed budget because two of the union contracts that could be ratified next Tuesday have yet to be added to the spending plan. Furthermore, at the suggestion of Seaman, Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin promised to look again at the budget for reductions.

“We will revisit and we will see if we can whittle here and whittle there,” McGoodwin said.

McGoodwin said he understood the concern over the tax rate but strongly believes the proposal is what the schools need.

In response to Seaman’s comment, some board members said they should support McGoodwin’s budget.

“He is telling us what he needs, to do what we asked him to do,” said board member Brian Rapp. “It is easy to say cut, but the kids will definitely be affected and we have a responsibility.”

Rapp agreed that the Stevens bond vote was critical but said level funding the budget would be akin to the board “turning its back on the administration.”

During the public hearing on the budget, attended by three residents, McGoodwin identified health insurance, special education, instructional technology and support, behavioral issues and contribution to the state retirement system as the main factors driving the roughly $930,000 increase in the general fund budget of $29.5 million.

Some of those factors McGoodwin called “non-negotiable,” such as health insurance, special education and retirement contributions. Technology, he said, is a critical piece of student learning.

“Instructional technology is not a nice perk, it is essential for our students to move forward,” McGoodwin said. “I believe it would definitely be the wrong decision if we ignore instructional technology needs.”

About $200,000 of the increase is for additional personnel to address behavioral issues of a small group of students.

“That is no small amount of money,” the superintendent said. “But we have no choice, we have to help these children.”

During his budget presentation, McGoodwin said the issues go beyond the typical behavioral problems often seen in schools.

“We are talking about mental health challenges,” he said, stating that of the 17 million children nationwide with mental health issues, only 20 percent are receiving help.

McGoodwin said he spoke at length with the building principals and required that they justify the expense of hiring behavioral specialists or other professionals.

“I know this will have a major impact on the budget,” he said.

When the board discussed the idea of keeping the tax rate flat, board member Charlene Lovett said she would oppose cutting the $200,000 for behavior issues from the budget.

The board also talked about one, possibly two, warrant articles to replace buses. Business Manager Tim Ball said the district has spent about $70,000 in repairs over the past year for six buses, one of which was built in 1994.

The board agreed it made more sense to recommend putting the money toward new lease purchase agreements and reduce the maintenance expense.

“You are trading maintenance off for new vehicles,” Seaman said.

Next Tuesday, the board is expected to ratify collective bargaining agreements and then on Wednesday, will hold a hearing on the Stevens bond and continue the budget hearing. The board will most likely finalize the warrant for the Feb. 6 deliberative session. The annual school meeting vote is March 12.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.