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School Taxes In Lebanon Could Rise as Statewide Budget Decisions Hit District

Property owners could see their school taxes rise by nearly $200 next year as school districts begin to feel the pinch of budget cuts in Concord.

The proposed budget for the 2013-14 school year, which will be voted on by residents in March, would total just over $36 million — an increase of more than $1,000,000 from the current year’s.

Jeff Peavey, vice chairman of the School Board, described the district’s budget situation as “overwhelming” and “devastating.”

“This is what the state Legislature mandated down,” Peavey said, referring to cost-shifting from the state level to the municipality. “Everything is being put back into our laps.”

The cost-shifting could force the School Board to seek cuts in programs and staff.

“We have been keeping the budget very, very frugal,” Peavey said. “But when you have $1,000,000 in added cost that we have no control over, it’s mandated, and we’re the ones left holding the bag.”

The school district expects to receive about $775,000 less from the New Hampshire Department of Education than it did this year. Jim Fenn, the district’s business administrator, said that loss of revenue alone could add about 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to the school portion of the property tax rate.

Additionally, a 25 percent increase in employer contributions to the state’s retirement plan is estimated to add roughly $650,000 to next year’s budget, which could add about 35 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to the tax rate.

Combined, the lost state aid and higher retirement costs would add about $186 to the tax bill of a property owner with a home assessed at $250,000. The current school portion of the property tax rate is $10.83.

Fenn said that aside from cost increases outside the district’s control, spending has been focused on maintaining current programming and adhering to School Board guidelines, such as recommended teacher-to-student ratios.

The proposed budget adds four teachers, one classroom assistant and one custodian, and restores the wages paid to secretaries to the levels of two years ago. Those staffing increases total nearly $380,000.

The School Board is negotiating three new union contracts — one with the teachers, one with the administrative staff and one with paraprofessionals, such as custodians.

As for whether cuts to staff levels or school programs are in order, Peavey said it was too soon to decide.

“The only way you can make big enough waves (to offset added costs) is by reducing staff,” Peavey said. “And right now, we have really cut in the past few years to get down to a basic, good operation.”

He added, “To go deeper, I’m afraid it would be cutting programs.”

The budget sets aside about $275,000 for retirement bonuses for 12 teachers and one secretary. Peavey said that although the positions are slated for retirement in 2014, those employees could retire a year sooner and receive those bonuses immediately.

Peavey said he wanted to encourage the public to come to the next two budget meetings, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 5 and Dec. 12 at Mount Lebanon Elementary School in West Lebanon.

“I urge people to come out and help us,” Peavey said. “We need everyone, everyone involved in this.”

He said the School Board was “stuck behind a rock and a hard place.”

“One of the (cost increases) you could probably get away with, but having both whammies at once, that’s tough,” he said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.