Claremont Mulls School Budget

Valley News Correspondent
Thursday, January 04, 2018

Claremont — Supporters and opponents of a proposed $31.4 million operating budget made their case before the School Board at a sometimes contentious public hearing on Wednesday night in the Stevens High School auditorium.

Not counting $307,153 the School Board recently added for the first year of a new two-year teachers contract, the budget reduces year-to-year spending on operations by 1 percent, or $329,000, from the current school year.

Three separate warrant articles for security upgrades, roof improvements and a bus replacement add another $280,000 in proposed spending.

According to information presented by SAU 6 Business Manager Mike O’Neill, the school tax rate would increase 32 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation if the budget is approved as presented. O’Neill said 30 cents of that increase is because state aid will fall by $263,000 next year as the state’s stabilization grant is slowly eliminated through annual reductions.

About 70 people attended the hearing, and several school district employees and residents told the board the budget cuts, which could result in several teaching positions as well as the crisis counselor at the high school being eliminated, would do irreparable harm to the school district.

Stevens Principal Patricia Barry talked about the difficult process the administration went through to recommend which positions would be eliminated but stressed that the employees whose jobs might be lost are critical to the school’s overall strategy.

“We will not be able to do what we are doing now without these people in our school,” Barry said. “We are telling you with our heart and soul if you want to see continued growth, we need them and without them there will be less growth.”

Also speaking against the cuts was Patty Arrison, a teacher at River Valley Community College.

“You absolutely cannot afford to cut these positions,” Arrison said, referring mostly to one English teacher at the high school whose job could go.

Arrison said in her experience Stevens students are often less prepared for college work than their counterparts from other nearby school districts and they need critical reading skills regardless of their course of study. “I am not seeing it from Stevens students.”

Supporters of the budget said taxpayers simply need a break, particularly those on fixed incomes.

“We’ve got to start thinking of the people in the community who can’t afford everything we want,” former Republican state Rep. Joe Osgood said. “One percent in a $31 million budget should be able to be found. Let’s start looking at the people in the community who we are literally pushing out of here.”

Osgood was followed by Carolyn Towle, who said at 71 she still works 45 hours a week.

“Why? Because I want to keep my house and I have to pay my taxes, so Joe, right on,” Towle said.

Before the public comment period, Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin made a presentation on the budget and emphasized several times that spending over the last four years has actually decreased slightly even with fixed cost increases and collective bargaining agreements. But annual decreases in state aid and downshifting of costs such as teacher retirement have led to tax rate increases, he added.

“We have been keeping increases flat but we have squeezed the orange dry,” McGoodwin said. “Do we resolve the tax issue on the backs of the children? If that is what the community desires, that will be the outcome, but there will be impacts.”

The board for the most part did not respond to comments from citizens, except for Vice Chairman Chris Irish.

Irish told the audience that the positions being eliminated are the administration’s recommendation not the board’s.

“We support the cut, we don’t support what they are proposing to cut,” Irish said of the four board members who backed the budget in a 4-3 vote on Dec. 20.

He compared the board’s job to that of a family trying to decide what it can do to live with the money it earns.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe there is a million dollars in this budget that can be cut without touching a program or teacher,” Irish said later in the meeting.

At one point, the hearing took an explosive turn when School Board Chairman Brian Rapp tried to stop Irish from responding to someone speaking against the cuts. When he would not stop addressing the resident, Rapp banged the gavel and called for a recess but Irish would not allow it. That led to a heated exchange between the two. Rapp got up to leave after calling for the recess but Irish told him he did not have the power to do so without the board’s consent.

“We run this meeting and the meeting will continue,” said Irish, who at one point stood and was face to face with Rapp. Irish forced a board vote to continue the meeting and eventually Rapp returned to his seat.

The exchange prompted Maple Avenue teacher School Ellie Feleen to condemn the board’s conduct.

“I am appalled at the behavior of adults in this room,” Feleen said. “I hope no students are watching this tonight.”

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