Cornish voters OK $5.4 million school budget and plans to curb future costs

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 03-10-2024 9:00 PM

CORNISH — Voters passed all articles by voice vote, including an amended budget of $5.4 million and plans to explore greater cooperation with Plainfield, at the nearly three-hour floor meeting at the elementary school on Saturday.

During ballot voting, School Board incumbents Justin Ranney and Jason Tetu easily won reelection.

The bulk of the meeting, which had to be paused for about 20 minutes to allow the school clerk to print more ballots as voting participation exceeded numbers those seen in recent years, was about the budget.

After the School Board explained the budget and the reason for the roughly $300,000 increase, resident Everett Cass proposed an amendment to reduce the budget to this year’s figure of $5.1 million.

Cass, who acknowledged his motion likely would fail, said school taxes are on track to double in the next eight to 10 years and he wants to “send a message.”

“This is meant to throw a shot across the bow,” Cass said, asking for a show of hands vote.

The amendment was defeated, 102-17.

School officials said if the amendment passed, it would have meant the elimination of three teaching positions, as many of the other costs in the proposed budget cannot be reduced because they are either mandated or under contract.

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“A flat budget,” would be about $15,000 more than what the School Board is proposing, Ranney, the board’s chairman, said.

“We are not adding and adding to this budget,” Ranney said. “These are set costs.”

Regarding administrative costs, Ranney said the cost to Cornish if it remained in the SAU with Claremont and Unity, based on projections, would have been $20,000 more this year. Cornish left SAU 6 in 2017.

While Cass’ amendment had little support, several said the per-pupil cost and administrative costs need to be reined in at some point.

Ranney agreed and explained that is why the board is proposing the articles to create a study for a cooperative school district and middle school consolidation with Plainfield.

“We need to find ways to benefit the children in the district and minimize costs,” Ranney said.

Before the budget was passed, it was trimmed $25,000 by the School Board because the anticipated cost to repair the roof over the cafeteria is a lot less than estimated. The board removed the $50,000 in roof repairs, then added back in $25,000 to complete a necessary upgrade of the school’s wireless system.

Voters also approved the establishment of a Cornish Elementary School Capital Reserve Fund for funding capital improvement to the school building and grounds, along with a $5,000 appropriation for the fund. A second article added $70,000 to the fund that would be used for a comprehensive study, including drawings and cost estimates for potential improvements and additions to the school.

“This will make it possible (so that) when we decide to go forward we will have the funding to do so,” Superintendent Sydney Leggett said.

The budget and capital reserve fund are projected to add $2.25 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to the school tax rate, bringing it to $19.11, district business administrator Beth Bierwirth said.

Resident Michael Fuerst told the annual school meeting attendees they need to direct their ire over the local cost of education to the state legislature, which he said has repeatedly refused to increase the per pupil adequacy as ordered by the court.

“The state has underfunded education for years,” Fuerst said. “That is where our focus should be. Tell lawmakers to listen to the Supreme Court.”

Separate articles to create a Cooperative School District Planning Committee to study the feasibility of forming a shared district with Plainfield and to form a Middle School Consolidation Study, also with Plainfield, for grades 6-8 passed without discussion.

The cooperative school district study will examine sharing expenses and resources with Plainfield to lower costs overall. The only stumbling block might be the high school models of Cornish and Plainfield, Leggett said. Cornish allows school choice while Plainfield has an agreement to send its students to Lebanon.

The Middle School Consolidation Study anticipates a 3,000-square-foot addition on the K-8 school in Plainfield, Leggett said.

Plainfield will vote Saturday on identical articles on a cooperative school district and middle school consolidation.

In the only contested race on Cornish’s school ballot, Ranney (262 votes) and Tetu (204) defeated Maggie Andrews (96) and Jonathan Reovan (39) for two three-year seats on the board.

Voter turnout for balloting was 319, or almost 27%, of the town’s 1,168 registered voters.

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