Close vote backs co-op budget with a cushion

HOLLIS – Voters at Wednesday’s annual Hollis/Brookline Cooperative School District Meeting were asked to choose between two budgets for the fiscal year that starts July 1: One with no increase, and one with an increase of less than a quarter of 1 percent.

They narrowly went with the larger amount, voting 129-113 in favor of a $18.88 million budget proposed by the School Board, that is $43,833 above this year’s budget. The alternative was proposed by the Budget Committee.

Dan Peterson, the School Board liaison to the Budget Committee, told voters that the board worried about unexpected expenses.

“What happens if we have zero contingency and a water pipe breaks? We don’t buy pencils? Or the furnace breaks or more people need benefits?” Peterson asked, saying that the additional amount the School Board was asking for would provide for contingencies.

In spite of a deepening recession, however, voters put their faith in the School Board’s slightly higher numbers.

Town Meeting ‘09

Brookline resident Jim Murphy, a member of that town’s School Board, compared the tax impact of the slightly higher bottom line to cost of “a large coffee and a doughnut at Dunkin’ Donuts.”

However, Steven Pucci, chairman of the Budget Committee, maintained that there were still “many areas of opportunity” for further savings.

Several voters asked about renegotiating teacher contracts to lower expenses, a practice common in other industries.

“These are the worst of times,” School Board Chairman Tom Enright told the audience in his opening remarks, paraphrasing the famous opening line from “A Tale of Two Cities.”

“We’re all in a bad mood, and we’re all frightened,” Enright said.

During the nearly three-hour meeting, members of the School Board and school district Budget Committee described a painstaking process of paring down the budget.

They noted savings expected in fuel costs next year and in the future, thanks to an initiative to audit and improve energy efficiency in school buildings.

And following a presentation by Hollis resident Doug Davidson supporting a petition warrant article asking voters to stop paying into the state’s retirement system for teachers, voters overwhelmingly rejected the article.

Town attorney William Drescher, who was asked for a legal opinion on the article, said the town is obligated to pay for teacher retirement.

“Anyone not happy with this should go to Concord,” Drescher said, explaining that such a change would require action by the state Legislature.