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Hanover Questions Proposed Ray School Expansion

Hanover — Residents questioned the School Board yesterday about the possible renovation and expansion of the Ray School, where enrollment is declining.

Most of the warrant articles presented at yesterday’s deliberative session generated little public comment from the 25 residents in attendance — including the $11.5 million budget and a teachers contract. But the article seeking $50,000 for an engineering study of the Ray School project brought skeptics.

“I’m curious about the need for expanding the school,” Hanover resident Stephen DenHartog said. “I would just like to see a little bit more forethought before spending big money.”

Superintendent Frank Bass said school officials are considering offering full-day kindergarten, which he expects will require at least one additional classroom. Officials would like to replace two portable classrooms, which were purchased a decade ago, with permanent structures.

District officials want to expand the special education program. Hanover sends special education students out of the district when it can’t meet the students’ needs. Ray School officials would like to keep special education students in-house and also take tuition students from other districts.

But not everyone bought the district’s reasons.

“I applaud the School Board for not letting the Ray School get to the point that the high school facility got,” said former School Board member Kari Asmus. “But I’m wondering, if to achieve that goal, do you need the $50,000 to do that?”

The district probably could ask a contractor to look at parts of the school for less than $50,000, said John Aubin, assistant superintendent for business. But the study wouldn’t be all-encompassing.

“If you want to look at, do we need to replace the portable, should we make space for kindergarten, should we supply hot water to all classroom sinks, you’re going to have to spend some money,” Aubin said.

Enrollment was also an issue when the School Board presented its $11.5 million budget, which is up 2.2 percent. The current enrollment at the Ray School is about 460 students, but School Board members expect enrollment to drop to 440 next year.

Resident Gert Assmus asked why the budget went up this year when enrollment has been going down.

School Board member Gordon Spaeth said the district has been hesitant to cut programs and teachers because predicted enrollment numbers aren’t sure bets. For example, the board predicted that only 431 students would enroll last fall, but 457 students started the school year.

From 2007 to 2010, enrollment stayed near 500 students, but in the last two years enrollment has dropped by as many as 50 students. Spaeth said two years of declining enrollment isn’t enough information for the board to justify significant cuts.

Last year, the teachers contract was a heated topic and failed before voters. But when the three-year contract was presented yesterday, the only person who stood up was the chairwoman of the Hanover Finance Committee, Kristi Fenner, who said the finance committee supported the contract.

The contract includes a 2 percent salary increase for each year of the contract, and annual step increases for teachers with up to 13 years of experience.

Fenner said after the meeting that the finance committee supported the contract because the “Dresden premium” — which is the high cost that Dresden pays its teachers compared to other districts — is beginning to go down. Teachers in the Dresden district earn an average of $69,833, more than $15,000 above the statewide average in New Hampshire.

Fenner said she was pleased to see the district start to reduce other expenditures. For example, eligibility for retirement will be moved from 15 years to 20 years and the district’s match for retirement funds will decrease from 4 percent to 3 percent.

Selectboard Chairman Robin Carpenter said he thinks the budget and teacher contracts will pass this year because he hasn’t heard many complaints.

Residents can vote for the school budgets between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Hanover residents can vote at the Hanover High School gym, and Norwich residents can vote at Tracy Hall.

Informational budget brochures were mailed to residents, but Bass said residents in Etna and Norwich had not yet received their budget brochures. Digital copies of the brochures can be found on the SAU 70 website at www.sau70.org.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.