Newport School District trims default budget

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-25-2024 9:00 PM

NEWPORT — With cuts that the School District’s legal counsel identified, the School Board and SAU 43 administration reduced the default budget in the budget warrant article for the annual school meeting from $22.11 million to $21.88 million.

Prior to the $227,000 in cuts presented on Thursday, the default budget was $52,000 more than the proposed budget of $22 million. Now it is $174,000 less. The default budget would be implemented only if the proposed budget is defeated by voters on March 12.

Superintendent Donna Magoon presented several slides indicating where the cuts in the default budget were being made and why.

Before Magoon spoke, former School Board member Bert Spaulding Sr., who resigned from the board soon after the Feb. 3 deliberative session, expressed frustration with the budget process during the public comment portion of the meeting. Spaulding said Magoon’s first budget proposal to the board on Dec. 8 carried a $700,000 increase from the current year, and the board unanimously deemed it “unacceptable.”

He said a scheduled budget review for Dec. 11 was canceled and never rescheduled, and nothing happened until Jan. 2 when the board accepted Magoon’s $400,000 in cuts and adopted the budget with a default budget of $52,000 more.

“The current budget has not been thoroughly reviewed by this board,” Spaulding said, adding later that he was “smart enough not to sign it, but everybody else signed.”

No changes were made to the proposed budget at the deliberative session. Then at a meeting on Feb. 6, the board approved a motion by Spaulding to have the district’s legal counsel review the default budget, which found $227,000 that should not have been in the default.

“Who made those errors?” Spaulding asked Thursday. “I was flabbergasted by the amount of changes.”

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Neither Magoon nor the board responded to Spaulding’s comments.

In her presentation, Magoon explained that when the money was cut from her budget proposal on Jan. 2, a lot of it should have been cut from the default budget as well but never was, until Thursday.

“When you make certain cuts from the (proposed) budget, is it a one-time expense or is it something you use over time?” Magoon said. “So anything that is considered a one-time expense gets removed from your default budget.”

Magoon went through a slide presentation identifying roughly 25 different line items where cuts, and some additions, were made to reach the $227,000.

The reductions ranged from a few hundred dollars to several thousand in areas including legal, postage, guidance, software and curriculum development.

There were a few increases, including special education and related services that went from $78,000 to $158,000.

“A lot of this was cutting to line up our budget with our default budget,” Magoon said.

Board members, of which there are now just three after Spaulding resigned following Tim Beard’s resignation, did not question the cuts or how the discrepancies were overlooked.

“In my opinion, I don’t think there was anything untoward,” board Chairman Steve Morris said. “It was just a bad situation we had to work through.”

According to state law, the default budget can be adjusted after the deliberative session but before the printing of the ballots by the governing body, in this case the School Board. It is not clear if the ballots have been printed in Newport, and attempts on Friday to reach School District Clerk Robert Scott and the SAU office were unsuccessful.

Spaulding, who left before Magoon’s presentation, has said the cuts really amount to no change at all with respect to spending because there is a separate warrant article of $373,000 for salary and benefits increases for teachers. The School Board had agreed to reopen the contract in hopes that better pay would help attract and retain more teachers.

The budget and teacher pay increases carry a combined tax rate bump of 97 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Neither Magoon nor the School Board stated what the tax rate impact of the default budget is. A defeat of the proposed budget would also mean there would be no pay raises for support staff, which are in the budget but not the default.

Messages left Friday for Magoon and SAU 43 Business Administrator Robert DiGregorio were not returned.

Morris said that the board would appoint a replacement for Beard at its March 28 meeting. Beard resigned in late January, a day after being indicted in Windsor County Superior Court on a single count of sexual exploitation of a minor. Three other board seats, a one-year spot and two three-year spots, will be elected at the March 12 school meeting vote.

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