Board trims budget proposal

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-06-2023 8:13 PM

CLAREMONT — At Wednesday’s annual school deliberative session, residents have the chance to comment on and recommend changes to the proposed $37.34 million school budget for 2023-24.

The total represents a nearly $2 million reduction from the spending plan that was initially requested by the school district administration.

Administrators first eliminated about a $1 million in early January by trimming new positions and programs at the technical center and $750,000 in special education costs district-wide, including tuition.

Then on Jan. 17, the School Board voted 5-1 to have Superintendent Michael Tempesta propose another $1 million in reductions by the end of the month. At the board’s meeting on Feb. 1, Tempesta outlined his recommendations, which include staff reductions of 15% at the elementary level and 25% at the secondary level along with increases in average class size. Tempesta said some employees would be reassigned so the overall reduction of full-time employees would be between four and seven positions.

Other changes include reconfiguring the middle school for grades 5 to 7 and sending eighth graders to the high school. The city’s three elementary schools, which are now K-5, would serve preschool to fourth grade.

Tempesta said the “positives” of his proposal are that it maintains neighborhood elementary schools, leaves enough room for expansion at the elementary level, creates savings and increased capacity at the middle school and high school, and will give eighth grade students more opportunity and earlier access to the technical center.

Both the administration and School Board have said their top priority is to see the proposed teachers contract approved. The first year cost of $1 million is in the proposed budget, but the money is not included in the $36.32 million default budget, which would take effect if voters defeat the budget at the annual school meeting vote on March 14.

The proposed budget is 2%, or $794,000, less than the $38.13 million spending plan for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

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School Board Vice Chairwoman Heather Whitney said at the meeting the district must pay teachers more to improve employee retention. The proposed contract includes a 3.25% increase the first year, brings the starting salary for first-year teachers to more than $42,000 and has step increases of about $1,250 for an additional year of service. The step increase from the third to fourth year is $3,000 based on data that shows that is the point many faculty members leave for higher salaries often in neighboring districts.

“While everything is important for me, I feel the most important thing we can do as a board is be sure we increase our salaries for teachers,” said Whitney. “That to me is no. 1.”

When asked by one resident about how the new configuration of grades would improve student achievement and test scores, Tempesta and Assistant Superintendent Michael Koski again said retaining quality teachers is a critical step in the path to better achievement.

“What impacts student learning the most are quality teachers,” Koski said. “Whether you have a class of 15 or 30, if the teacher is skilled then students make gains. When we lose a quarter to a third of our staff each year, we can’t develop our large impact quality teaching staff.”

Moving the pre-K program to the elementary level had broad support, but others said not enough time and discussion has been devoted to the new middle school and high school grade configuration, or larger class sizes. Pre-K is currently at the Sugar River Valley Technical Center.

Resident Candace Crawford said she supported the teacher contract, but did not think it was fair of the board to present an either-or scenario to voters.

“Either you support the teachers contract and cut a million dollars. or leave a million dollars in and don’t support the teachers. I don’t think that is a fair comparison,” Crawford said. “I think we can support the teachers contract, however, we don’t have to cut a million dollars. I think you have to give the city of Claremont the chance to support the schools wholeheartedly.”

The budget, as proposed, estimates a school tax rate of $23.19. The current rate set by the Department of Revenue Administration last fall is $22.79.

The deliberative session, where voters can amend the budget, begins at 6:30 p.m. in the Stevens High School auditorium. The budget is the only article on the warrant.

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

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