After a four-hour Saturday-morning session at Keene High School, the Keene Board of Education voted to recommend a $66.7 million budget for the Keene School District in 2018-19.
The budget, unchanged from what administrators had proposed earlier this month, would represent a 0.6 percent increase from the 2017-18 budget voters approved last year.
“This wasn’t a highly controversial budget this year, and it’s not a huge increase,” George Downing, the board’s chairman, said earlier this week.
Saturday’s school board vote is one in a series of steps culminating March 13, when voters will make a final decision on the budget and other proposed measures that appear on the warrant.
Next up is a public hearing, scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the auditorium of Keene High School. School-board members will present the budget and other items on the warrant, and members of the public can weigh in.
Then, the process moves to a Feb. 10 deliberative session, where school district residents can propose and vote on changes to the budget and warrant articles, producing the final version of the warrant voters see in at the polls in March.
A mix of relatively modest changes accounts for the proposed budget increase, according to the proposal.
Special-education spending would rise $355,175, driven largely by increases in out-of-district tuition, transportation and contracted services. The board has little control over that spending, Downing said, as it depends on students’ needs.
Other proposed new costs include $118,411 for electronic textbooks and associated equipment for Keene High School’s foreign-language programs, and $60,688 for a new full-time groundskeeper position.
But some spending would decrease under the proposal, most notably a $277,583 drop in health-insurance expenditures and $107,901 in savings on early retirement teacher stipends.
It all tallies up to a proposed budget of $66,661,091. If voters reject it, a default budget of $66,327,189 will kick in.
On Saturday, school-board members proposed two minor amendments to the proposed budget, both of which failed.
One would have given an extra $15,000 to the high school’s Cheshire Career Center to help fund a carpet replacement and a summer program. The amendment didn’t go through, with Robert Malay, the superintendent of School Administrative Unit 29, saying he believed the savings from an unexpected resignation at the career center could cover those costs.
Along with Keene, SAU 29 comprises Chesterfield, Harrisville, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland.
The other amendment would have raised the annual stipend for school board members by $500, to $2,500.
“This will really be politically popular,” board member James Carley quipped as he introduced the amendment.
The raise, Carley said, would bring school board compensation in line with that of the Keene City Council and perhaps encourage candidates from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to run for open seats.
Two other members, Susan Hay and Kris Roberts, agreed, with Hay saying the pay bump could help single parents cover childcare costs.
But other members said they thought the money — which would add about $4,800 to the budget, taking workers compensation and federal tax payments into account — would be better spent elsewhere.
“In another year, I might agree with this,” board member Edward Murdough said. “ … Since we were unable to come to an agreement with the largest group of our employees, I’m not about to vote to give ourselves a raise, even though it’s symbolic.”
Murdough was referring to negotiations with the Keene Education Association, which ended last week without a new contract. Instead, the 324 teachers represented by the union will remain under their current contract for another year.
In addition to the budget, the school board on Saturday recommended a set of warrant articles. One asks voters to approve a three-year contract with the Keene Association of Principals and Supervisors, which would increase costs $28,848 in the first year.
Two articles propose to transfer unspent money from the 2017-18 budget into a buildings maintenance fund and a special education trust fund, with each pot receiving $50,000.
Another article pitches an authorized regional enrollment area agreement for 6th-graders from Stoddard, Sullivan and Surry who attend Keene Middle School. Voters in Keene and all three towns need to approve the agreement for it to go into effect.
Three additional articles are set to appear on the warrant after members of the public submitted them. One of these petition articles would switch the Keene School District from an official ballot vote to a town meeting style. That means voters would show up to a March meeting to debate, amend and ultimately vote on measures, rather than voting at the polls on a ballot that has been finalized a month prior.
Another petition article would prevent the amount of revenue the school district raises through local property tax from increasing by more than 1 percent each year. Under the proposed 2018-19 budget, revenues derived from local property tax would rise 1.9 percent.
The other commits the school district to reducing its average per-student operating expense by $500 every year until it matches the statewide average.
School-board members and district administrators said the article reflects an outdated view of Keene’s per-student costs. On Saturday, Timothy Ruehr, SAU 29’s business administrator, presented numbers from the N.H. Department of Education underlining the point.
In the 2007-08 school year, Keene’s per-student cost was close to 10 percent above the state average. Now, that difference is less than 1 percent — $15,416 per student in Keene, compared to $15,311 statewide, a difference of $105.
“This comes up quite a bit,” Carley, the board member, said, “and it seems like there’s a perception out there that our costs are much higher than the average in the state — because at one point they were.”
Documents outlining the proposed budget and warrant articles can be viewed at http://www.keene.k12.nh.us/our — board under the Official Ballot, Budget, & Warrant Information tab.
Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @PCunoBoothKS