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Newport Voters Advance School Budget

Newport — After three hours and several failed amendments Tuesday night, nearly 70 voters finalized the school district warrant that will now go to voters during all-day balloting on March 11.

The only change, proposed by the School Board, that was approved was a $54,000 reduction in the default budget.

The proposed budget of $17.5 million carries an estimated tax rate impact of 34 cents per $1,000 of assesessed valuation and is only $28,000 less than the default budget, which would add 41 cents to the tax rate.

Selectboard member Todd Fratzel questioned a $173,000 addition in both budgets that the administration said will cover health care that the district now must offer under the Affordable Health Care act.

SAU 43 Business Manager Chuck Stuart said health insurance now must be offered to anyone who is working 30 hours or more per week. Previously, the threshold was 35 hours.

“We have to have that in there,” said School Board Chairman Leo Paquin.

But Fratzel and resident Bert Spaulding Sr., weren’t persuaded and wanted the board to vow to return the money to taxpayers if the mandate for health insurance was incorrect. Though the board did not speak collectively on the issue, Paquin, who is not seeking re-election, said the money would go back to the taxpayers if it were not used for that specific purpose.

Spaulding and Fratzel made most of the comments and amendments Tuesday night.

Motions to amend articles 3 and 4, which both pertain to teacher pay, to one dollar each — effectively defunding the pay increases — were overwhelmingly defeated.

In a back and forth with Stuart, Spaulding asked why residents have to pay the second half of a step increase for teachers in article 3 on this year’s warrant when they approved the step raises last year and were not aware more costs were coming this year. Stuart said they negotiated an agreement with teachers to receive a half-step bump in pay each year.

“I don’t believe voters knew that,” Spaulding said of the $60,400 article. “A better way to have done this would have been a full step (last year.)”

Fratzel said when the half-step increase passed last year another half-step was not part of the last year’s article and never discussed.

“We are paying for something we think we approved last year,” he said.

Sarah Fischer, co-president of the teachers’ union spoke in support of the article. She said it “honors” the commitment the board made last year to give teachers a full step increase over two years.

Article 4, for $98,000, covers what Paquin said was a violation of the teachers’ contract that happened a few years ago when new hires were brought in at a pay level above current staff with the same years of service and same education.

“This is a negotiated settlement (to correct that violation,” Paquin said.

Spaulding sought more details.

“I need to know where this came from,” he said. “If we don’t know who made the error, we can’t correct it.”

Paquin would only say it was a past superintendent and that steps have been taken to be sure it doesn’t happen again.

Article 5 is a two year teachers’ contract costing $95,000 the first year and $166,000 the second.

“I’d be very surprised if this community votes yes on all three of them,” Spaulding said of articles, 3, 4 and 5. “It is just too much.”

Fischer, as she did with article 4, voiced support for the new teachers contract and said it will help the district retain good teachers.

“We want our teachers to stay in Newport so that our community can reap the benefits of stability and experience,” Fischer said in a prepared statement.

Fratzel was irked by articles 6 and 8, which would allow the school district to hold another vote if the teachers contract in article 5 and the support staff contract in article 7, failed.

“I think it is outrageous that if article 5 fails, you get to have another vote,” he said. “I don’t like what we are doing here.”

An amendment to insert the word “not” in article 6 so the board would not hold another vote was defeated.

Also rejected was Spaulding’s amendment to cut to zero from 2.5 percent the amount the district can tap from a budget surplus to reduce taxes or use for emergencies.

There were some wording changes on articles using money from capital reserve funds for buses, football and track repairs and improved security under articles 11, 12 and 13.

Finally, Spaulding strongly opposed articles 14 and 15 which would allow the board to spend money from two reserve funds without voter approval.

“These five people would usurp our legislative intent,” he said about the original article. “We hold the purse strings.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.