Aldermen begin poring over school budget

NASHUA – In presenting her budget to the Board of Aldermen last week, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau allowed some departments to exceed her request to keep spending within a 1 percent increase.

Lozeau explained that the oversight boards for those departments made compelling arguments for going beyond her original request.

Whether the Board of Aldermen will agree remains to be seen.

Along with the police and fire departments, Lozeau’s $217.9 million proposed budget would give the school department a 1.5 percent increase for next year.

On Monday night, members of the aldermanic budget committee began their review of the school department budget, which, after Lozeau’s reductions, is at $87.6 million, a 1.49 percent increase.

The school department makes up the largest portion of the city’s budget.

Despite Lozeau’s request to cap spending for next year, the Board of Education sent an $88.5 million budget proposal for next year to City Hall. That budget would have been a 2.47 percent increase over this year’s.

Lozeau then met with board members personally, asking them to pare the budget by another 1 percent, or $841,443.

The Board of Education opted to keep the budget as is, but did meet again with Lozeau to go over areas where cuts could be made if she reduced the bottom line.

Lozeau told aldermen Monday night that the process was unusual but effective.

“That gave the opportunity to the Board of Education to make it clear they supported a 2.47 percent increase, but didn’t leave me in a place where I wasn’t quite certain where those cuts might end up,” she said.

Aldermen spent Monday night’s meeting digging into some of the details of the proposed school district budget, spending much of their time asking questions of district administrators about salaries.The committee didn’t take any action on the budget before press time, and some aldermen questioned ways money was spent after they approved the last budget.

Ward 7 Alderman Richard Flynn asked district administrators to explain raises that had been handed out to principals and department heads over the course of the year.

In June, the Board of Education approved a proposal from Superintendent Christopher Hottel to increase the salaries of principals in the district because they would now be working year-round.

In some cases, salaries were increased as much as 10 percent.

At the time, district administrators said the extra money was coming from assistant principal positions that weren’t being filled.

“It’s surprising to see these kinds of things,” Flynn said, adding those raises were handed out shortly after the budget was approved. “I know we don’t have to spend every dollar we have.”

Hottel said the raises for principals and headmasters were part of a leadership initiative and the money was taken from areas were efficiencies could be found.

Flynn also questioned “sizable” raises approved for the director of plant operations and the truancy officer.

Among the $841,443 in reductions made from the Board of Education’s original proposal were four middle school reading intervention teachers, which would have cost $223,289.

Those would have been new positions.

Plant operations would be reduced by $213,312, which Jim Mealey, the district’s chief operating officer, said would come from supplies and equipment, as well as one full-time custodian at the high school.

Money for computer replacements and summer school were also cut, along with $97,000 in raises for unaffiliated employees.

All of the reductions were agreed upon between Lozeau and the Board of Education before she presented her budget proposal.

After reviewing average class sizes for the elementary schools, Alderman-at-Large David Deane said the implications that previous cuts would lead to class averages of 25 students haven’t been realized.

Instead, Deane noted that most classes are around 20 or 21 students.

“When I look back in time, we’re four or five students from what had been anticipated a couple a years ago, which is good news,” Deane said.

Overall, district enrollment is project to decline steadily over the next several years.

Alderman-at-Large Ben Clemons asked district administrators directly whether the staff cuts necessary to meet Lozeau’s bottom line would require any layoffs.

Mealey said he couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be any layoffs.

Overall, the district would have a net loss of two teaching positions, but that is after taking into account positions being cut and others being added. The district would also lose 33.5 paraprofessional positions.

Almost all of the reductions to staff could be done as people retire or leave for other districts, said Mealey. But there could be some cases where individual positions are cut and those people can’t be easily transferred, he said. “There could be some impacted individuals,” Mealey said.

Clemons said he couldn’t support the budget until he got a guarantee that no one would be laid off.

“We have a ton of money in this that’s in our unexpended accounts,” he said. “We have constraints and whatnot under the spending cap, but I find it difficult to support this . . . when we have such a large surplus sitting in our accounts.”

Mealey said it would be difficult to give a definitive answer on layoffs because of the time frame that employees have to notify the district they are leaving next year.

Board of Education member Richard Dowd explained that to meet Lozeau’s guidelines, the board had cut in other places to make up for contracted salary increases.

On average, teachers will receive a 6.9 percent increase in pay next year, which includes step and wage increases.

Nashua | Board could make changes to $88.5m proposal.