Budget cuts threatening city schools

NASHUA – School district officials are concerned that meeting Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s budget request for next year could mean having to make deep cuts across the district.

Because of the difficult economic times, Lozeau is asking all city departments to tighten their belts and come up with budgets for next year that represent a 1 percent increase in spending.

Last year, she asked departments to keep increases in spending to 3 percent.

Jim Mealey, the school district’s chief operating officer, said keeping next year’s budget to a 1 percent increase wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover the cost of contracted salary increases.

Mealey said the district has $3.1 million in increased contract salary obligations for next year, of which $2.36 million are salary increases for teachers, based on the terms of the teachers contract.

The cost of wages for teachers is due to go up 6.98 percent for the 2009-10 school year, a figure that includes salary raises and step increases.

This year’s operating budget is $86.3 million, which means that a 1 percent increase would mean an increase of approximately $860,000 for next year’s budget.

Even a 3 percent increase for next year wouldn’t be enough to cover all of the district’s increased salary obligations.To make up the difference for next year, the district will likely have to cut back spending on all of the district’s programs, Mealey said.

“These are difficult cuts that are going to have to be made,” Mealey said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to hurt.”

The school district utilizes a program-based budget system, which starts by teams of administrators, teachers, students and other community members creating budget packages for each of the district’s 14 programs.

The committees have to come up with various budget packages, which are supposed to represent different levels of spending.

For example, one package has to reflect what would be cut if spending was reduced by 4 percent, and another package has to reflect what would be added if spending were increased by 2 percent.

As it stands, Mealey said he expects that the district will have to make a 4 percent cut in almost all of its programs, with some possibly getting a 2 percent cut.

It is yet to be determined what those cuts would be, but it appears that much of the savings would have to come from reducing staff.

At a budget committee meeting Thursday, school board members received copies of the various program packages, which indicates what would be eliminated if spending is cut.

The largest program in the budget is elementary instruction, which was $16,586,985 this year. To meet a 4 percent cut of $663,479.44, the elementary school committee is recommending to cut 14.5 teaching positions to meet the bottom line.

The committee for the middle school and high school programs also chose to cut teaching positions. If cut by 4 percent, middle schools would lose 10 teachers and the high schools would lose six teachers.

Cutting those 30 teachers would save nearly $1.4 million next year.

School board president Tom Vaughan said Lozeau’s request was more restrictive than what he expected, but said he also understands the rationale for trying to cut back.

That being said, Vaughan added that he is very concerned what the impact of having to cut back will have on services and how that will affect student performance.

Nashua has several schools that have been designated “in need of improvement,” based on the testing standards of No Child Left Behind. The district as a whole has also been designated “in need of improvement.”

“It’s going to be very hard for us to come in at that level and maintain the momentum that will allow us to get off of these lists,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan added that he is also willing to go through the budget process with Lozeau’s request in mind in an effort to see where the district can produce savings.

School board member Sandra Ziehm said she is concerned that many of the areas that could be cut would come out of the classrooms.

“When looking at the suggested cuts, many of them are classroom services, which are already bare,” she said.

Bob Sherman, president of the Nashua Teachers Union, said that whatever Lozeau is recommending, the district is required to meet its contracted salary obligations.

The actual impact of having to meet the 1 percent budget increase likely won’t be known for several weeks, he said.

“I’ve heard a lot of rumors and I’ve heard a lot of fears,” he said.

The budget packages are ranked by priority by an advisory committee, and it is then up to the superintendent and the school board to propose how much spending should be for next year.

The program managers will present their spending proposals at a meeting Jan. 28. Superintendent Christopher Hottel will make his budget proposal Feb. 3. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 9.

The budget is due to the mayor by the end of February.

Lozeau recommends a city budget to the board of aldermen, who have the final say on how much each department’s budget will be for next year.