Board sticks with request for budget

NASHUA – Last week, the Board of Education sent a message to Mayor Donnalee Lozeau: If she wants the school budget to stay within an increase of 1 percent, she’d have to cut it herself.

After meeting with the mayor on Wednesday, the board of education revised its message.

We still don’t want to cut the budget, the board agreed to tell the mayor. But if you feel you need to, we’ll help set priorities to show you where the cuts should be made.

After hours of working and reworking a motion, with several members pitching suggestions to tweak the wording, the board voted to write the mayor that it is sticking by its budget request for Fiscal Year 2010 of $88.47 million, up 2.47 percent from the current budget.

However, the board also agreed to “provide a prioritization for a reduction” that suggested cuts that would drive the budget down to about $87.63 million, or a 1.49 percent increase, according to the motion proposed mainly by member Rick Dowd, but revised with the help of Robert Hallowell and other board members.

The board hung its discussions on establishing the 1.49 percent as a bottom-line threshold because it preserved a $45,600 school nurse position.

Speaking to the board at the beginning of the meeting, Lozeau said she was asking for the board to work with her to keep the budget increase to the 1 percent she is asking of all city departments.

But Lozeau added, “If you come in at 1.49 (percent), I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”

Board members took her statement to be not only a green light to establish that threshold, but also a commitment that Lozeau would champion a school budget with a 1.49 percent increase when she presents it to the board of aldermen on Tuesday.

Under city charter, the mayor is empowered to cut the total amount of the school budget. She also can suggest reductions in individual spending lines, though the school board isn’t bound to honor those suggestions.

After the mayor presents the budget to the aldermen, it becomes their budget. Aldermen likewise can cut the bottom line of the school budget and suggest line-item cuts that the school board isn’t required to honor.

But Lozeau said she wanted to work with the board of education in reducing the budget rather than ignoring their wishes and acting unilaterally.

“I want to work with you, and I don’t want you to feel you’re taking this hit alone,” Lozeau said.

The school board should stick to its guns and present what it feels is an adequate budget to fund the schools, member Jack Kelley said.

“I feel we have to go forward with what we feel the district needs to operate,” Kelley said.

Later in the discussion, he argued that the school board shouldn’t agree in principle with the mayor that the budget should be reduced, only set priorities for cuts if they’re unavoidable, with the understanding that the money should be restored if additional revenue is found.

Lozeau called Kelley out on comments he made last week that appeared to say the mayor was looking to cover herself politically by requesting the budget cuts.

Kelley apologized for the remark.

“As soon as I made the comment, I knew it was going to be in The Telegraph’s article. I knew it,” Kelley said.

What he meant to say was that the mayor had the right to make reductions in the budget’s bottom line, Kelley said.

As for the list of priorities to get to the 1.49 percent threshold, the board of education earmarked seven areas.

In order of priority:

$97,000 from salary increases. These could be made up through attrition if an administrator or veteran teachers retire and are replaced by inexperienced teachers, or by reductions in nonunion salaries.

$213,000 from plant operations.

$150,000 from special services.

$52,552 in media and technical services.

$223,289 from middle school instruction.

$47,965 in student services from the summer school program.

$57,336 from career and technical instruction. The board’s feeling was that money could be found from another source, perhaps economic stimulus funds.