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‘Right-Sized’ School Budget Means Cutbacks in Windsor

Voting for Windsor Town Meeting will be held by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 5 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Windsor Municipal Building. It follows an informational meeting to be held Monday, March 4 at 7 p.m. at the Windsor High School auditorium.

Windsor — Voters at this year’s Town Meeting will have to contend with a proposed school budget that cuts or eliminates more than a dozen half- and full-time positions from the district, to the tune of nearly $1 million.

The staff reductions, which will affect a combined total of 12 staff members, include eliminating three para-educators, two members of the support staff, a nurse and a social studies and kindergarten teacher, according to Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent David Baker. The drama program will also be cut, though plays and performances after school will continue.

“We’re disappointed that so many programs that are beneficial to the children and students are being cut,” said Beth Houde, the president of the teachers union. “And we’d hope that there are other ways to do that.”

Even with the cuts, which included slashes to field trips and general supplies, the school budget that will go in front of voters comes in at $9.15 million, a 2.4 percent increase over fiscal year 2013.

If the board had “rolled the whole staff over,” Baker said, adding benefit increases, the tax increase would land at 30 cents per $100 of valuation.

After the proposed cuts, which totaled $1.2 million including non-personnel items, the proposed tax increase ended up at 7 cents per $100 of valuation. For a property assessed at $200,000, that would add about $140 to the tax bill.

Baker said the reasoning behind such large-scale cuts was to get the budget “right-sized” — the district has been operating on deficits of around $400,000 the past several years, and dwindling enrollment and increasing health benefit figures have only made the problem worse.

Enrollment in Windsor schools has declined by 212 students in the past decade, to 516 in the current school year, a 29 percent decrease in students.

But the potential cuts could grow even more dire if voters turn the budget down, Baker said.

“If we don’t have a budget on March 5, there’s a good chance that we’ll have to go even deeper on the (reduction in force) list” just to keep the district afloat, he said.

And if there’s nothing in place by the end of the current fiscal year, the district will have to operate on 87 percent of its current budget, which would likely force another $1 million in cuts, according to Baker.

“We’re disappointed that there are so many cuts affecting kids’ programs,” Houde said. “All of these programs are valuable to the kids.”

Baker said that instead of fighting the fact that Windsor schools have been decreasing in size over the past decade, the school should hone in on its specific strengths, becoming a “very good small high school.”

“I think a lot of high schools are facing that right now,” the superintendent said of enrollment issues. “We’re going to have to get centered on what we want to do well and do it well.

“And then market ourselves that way,” Baker said.

On the municipal side, however, Windsor is finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, officials said. After several years of contentious budget seasons without establishing a long-term plan, the budget approved by the Selectboard, if passed by voters, would establish a five-year capital funding plan for infrastructure improvements.

“I think the town is in really good shape,” said Selectboard Chairman Justin Ciccarelli, who called this year’s process a “different world” compared to when he first sat on board in 2007.

The proposed general fund budget totals $4.5 million, not including funding for separate agencies that appear on the Town Meeting warrant. That number is an increase of $487,506 from the current fiscal year.

The tax increase, though, is small. If all spending on the Windsor Town Meeting warning is approved, the municipal tax rate would increase by just over a penny to $1.16 per $100 of valuation, resulting in a $23 increase in municipal taxes on a property assessed at $200,000.

Voters will also be asked to weigh in on a bond for town water and sewer system repairs that touches $2 million, the largest number on the warrant besides the budget itself.

While the full slate of repairs could cost around $7 million, they won’t all occur this year.

“Instead of asking for all money at once, we’re going to pick out which parts are most important to be replaced first,” Ciccarelli said.

Town Manager Tom Marsh said that the town has been working with an engineering firm to put dollar amounts on the necessary repairs. While most of the work can be done “incrementally over time,” Marsh said, $2 million is necessary for “significant work that needs to be done on critical portions of the plant.”

The bond’s payment would fall on water and sewer rate-payers, Marsh said, who likely wouldn’t see an increase in their bills until 2016, as the repairs aren’t expected until calendar year 2014 under the current time frame.

One of the catalysts that made the five-year funding plan possible was an added ambulance presence, Marsh said. The town purchased three ambulances via lease agreements in 2012, and though the lease payments were added to the town’s operating budget, the revenue they bring in greatly outweighs the expense.

According to Marsh, the town is projecting a nearly $442,000 increase in revenue, which comes to a profit of $173,000 when operating costs are subtracted. That increase allowed the board to start planning ahead while keeping the tax rate relatively level, he said.

“That gives us a model to build on as each year goes by,” Marsh said of the capital funding plan, calling it a “big step forward in the fiscal stability” of the town.

While there are no contested races for either the Selectboard or School Board, one political newcomer with a similar attitude will likely take a to-be vacant Selectboard seat.

Rich Thomas, who owns Paradise Sports is running unopposed for a three-year seat currently held by Selectman Larry Dougher, who is not stepping down. Selectboard Vice Chairman Clayton Paronto is unopposed for his two-year seat,

As for the School Board, incumbents Jesse Tyler and Carl Malikowski, are running unopposed for a three-year and a two-year term, respectively.

Thomas, 43, who will be the only new blood on either board, said he didn’t have much in the way of an agenda, but wanted to keep the town going in what he sees as the right direction.

“I felt like I was getting a lot of help, and I felt like it was my turn to step in and help as well,” Thomas said.

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

CORRECTION

This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Wednesday, Feb. 20 edition of the Valley News.

If all spending on the Windsor Town Meeting warning is approved, the municipal tax rate would increase by just over a penny to $1.16 per $100 of valuation, resulting in a $23 increase in municipal taxes on a property assessed at $200,000. A story in Saturday's Valley News incorrectly described the proposed tax impact.