Strafford, First Branch Unified school districts to vote on budget, staffing

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2020 9:35:16 PM
Modified: 5/21/2020 9:35:05 PM

Two Orange County school districts have planned votes next month and proposed staffing changes in an effort to approve budgets for the coming year.

Voters will go to the polls on June 20 in Strafford and in the First Branch Unified district towns of Chelsea and Tunbridge. Both Strafford and First Branch voted down school budgets at their annual meetings in March, and officials in both districts have had to work out budget adjustments and changes to voting methods that satisfy state law as well as the physical distancing recommendations designed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

In Strafford, voting is scheduled to run 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Newton School. As in several other districts still trying to pass budgets, voting will be held as a drive-thru. An informational session is planned for 1 p.m. June 13, to be held via Google Meet. Voters will be able to join both by phone and via computer, School Board Chairwoman Sarah Root said in an interview.

First Branch will hold an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. June 15, also via an online platform. The vote will also be a drive-thru process, but the district still needs to work out with the town clerks in Chelsea and Tunbridge the details of how the voting will take place, said Kathy Galluzzo, chairwoman of the First Branch board.

Both districts moved to reduce the tax impact of their budgets.

In Strafford, a grade three and four teacher opted not to return to the preK-8 school next year and the School Board opted not to fill the position. The savings of $85,111 allowed the board to spend $58,500 to increase staffing elsewhere. The school nurse would move from 0.6 to 0.8 full-time equivalents, or FTE. This was especially important given the current health crisis. If school can reopen in August or September, “we’d need the nurse there whenever kids are there,” Root said.

The board also increased a music position from 0.3 to 0.4 FTEs, to add music instruction for seventh and eighth grades, and added a 0.4 FTE art position and a 0.2 FTE foreign language position. This year, Strafford had been sending its seventh and eighth graders to Thetford Academy for electives and enrichment, but next year’s budget calls for bringing the middle school grades back to Newton School for those activities.

Even with those additions, Strafford will still have $26,600 in savings, to which the board decided to add another $10,000 from a tuition reserve fund to reduce taxes. The proposed budget of $3.35 million is $145,191 higher than the current year’s spending, an increase of 4.5%.

If approved, the budget would necessitate a residential tax rate increase of 13 cents per $100 of assessed value, which would raise the tax bill on a home assessed at $250,000 by $325.

First Branch cut the district’s foreign language program, a full-time position, and reduced guidance by 0.8 FTE and art by 0.4 FTE. The schools had struggled to fit foreign language into the daily schedule, Galluzzo said, and the changes to the guidance hours, as well as changing how the district deploys student support services, are meant to strengthen those areas across the district’s two schools. Under the new budget, there would be a half-time guidance counselor in each school and a half-time student support staff. Personnel from the nonprofit Clara Martin Center also will assist in providing support to students.

“A lot of it is working with kids who really need the help,” Galluzzo said.

First Branch officials were hampered in adjusting the budget by the discovery of additional tuition students the district will have to pay for. The new budget total is $6.98 million. That’s $268,000 more than the current year’s spending, an increase of 4%. This would necessitate residential property tax increases of 7.6 cents per $100 of assessed value in Chelsea, and a 12.3-cent-per-$100 increase in Tunbridge, though most resident taxpayers are assessed education taxes based on their income on their primary residences.

To support the budget, the owner of a property assessed at $250,000 would pay an additional $190 in Chelsea, and another $307 in Tunbridge.

As in Strafford, the First Branch towns would need to keep polls open at least from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Without a floor meeting, and with only an online informational meeting, it will be harder to inform the public about the budget and its contents, Galluzzo said. Board members will be available to answer questions.

“We do encourage people to write in to us and call any of the board members,” she said.

The economic uncertainty of the health crisis adds an extra layer of uncertainty to the vote next month, Galluzzo said. While the board has made some cuts, any deeper rescissions would endanger the district’s programs.

“We’d be really interrupting education for our kids if we cut more from this budget,” she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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