200 turn out in Newport, approve amended school budget of $19.8 million

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/1/2020 9:26:46 PM
Modified: 2/1/2020 9:26:43 PM

NEWPORT — Emotions ran high inside the cafeteria at Newport Middle High School as about 200 residents turned out Saturday to debate the proposed school budget.

Many praised the hard work of the district’s teachers but sharply criticized the administration and School Board for its fiscal practices. Others spoke passionately about avoiding steep cuts that they say would harm the education of students.

After nearly three hours, voters approved an amended budget of $19.8 million.

The budget, adopted 110-72, is a $424,000, or 2.1%, increase from the current year. The School Board’s original budget proposal of $21 million was a $1.6 million, or 8.3%, increase.

After the main budget article of just over $21 million was read by School Board member Linda Callum-King, she quickly moved for an amendment on behalf of the board to decrease it to $20.3 million.

School District Moderator Howard Dunn then allowed a second amendment by Todd Fratzel, a Selectboard member, who sought the further reduction to $19.8 million. Fratzel’s motion cut $1.2 million from the proposed budget and lowered the projected tax rate increase from $2.95 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to about $1. (Last year, the tax increase was projected to be nearly $5 but ended up at $2.05 when the district received additional revenue from the New Hampshire state budget.)

When it came time to vote, Fratzel’s amendment passed 100-89, and voters then adopted the proposed $19.8 million budget — but not before a lengthy debate.

Speaking in support of Callum-King’s amended proposal, interim Superintendent Brendan Minnihan said the school district is looking to strike a balance between providing the best education it can while acting responsibly and understanding taxpayers’ abilities to pay.

Fratzel said his concern that led him to make his amendment was not about the quality of education and said Newport school teachers do an excellent job preparing students for college and careers, but he was less complimentary of the administration.

“We have financial mismanagement,” Fratzel said. “What is at risk is the financial destruction of this community. At some point this runaway train has to stop. So many are struggling in this community.”

Others had similar feelings as the administration deals with a pending deficit that some worried could run as high as $800,000 but has not yet been determined.

Resident Kurt Minnich charged that board members are “empowering themselves” while those on fixed incomes “are pushed into a darker corner.”

School Board Chairwoman Linda Wadensten warned the proposed reduction would have a “devastating” effect on the school system.

“We aren’t miracle workers,” Wadensten said. “This will absolutely eliminate progress made so far. There will be larger classrooms and staff cuts.”

She said she was sympathetic to the impact on taxpayers, but while the finger of blame is often pointed at the School Board, she argued that the root problem is the town’s small tax base.

Melissa Mitchler, co-president of the teachers’ union, also pleaded with residents to reject Fratzel’s amendment, calling it a scare tactic.

“I am afraid of what will happen if this amendment is passed,” Mitchler said. Earlier, voters rejected an amendment of the deficit reduction article that would have increased the stated number of $1 — essentially a placeholder until the district determines the true deficit — to $200,000, a number proposed by the district that Minnihan thinks is closer to the true deficit costs.

Minnihan said they believe $200,000 would be sufficient to cover deficit costs, and the administration is taking additional steps to keep expenses down for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“We feel the $200,000 is reasonable,” Minnihan said. “We don’t think we will need more than that.”

But voters hope the district can find a way to cut the deficit to below $200,000.

Bert Spaulding Sr., said rejecting the amendment will send the right message that spending needs to be controlled. He then went on to list several purchases that he does not believe were necessary and said right now, the deficit could be much higher than $200,000.

“We really don’t know,” Spaulding said. “They did not stay in the bounds of the budget we gave them. They overspent. I’m suggesting you don’t vote for this and leave it at a dollar.”

The amendment failed 120-66.

It is not clear how the district will handle the deficit when the final number is known.

The warrant’s other five article were adopted as is, including $25,000 for a capital reserve fund for special education. It would add 6 cents to the tax rate.

The deliberative session, which began at 9:30 a.m. — about a half-hour late because of the large crowd — adjourned just after 2 p.m.

The school budget and the rest of the warrant now goes to voters March 10 at the annual school district vote.

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

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