Committee leaves budget untouched

NASHUA – If Mayor Donnalee Lozeau wants to give the aldermen a more palatable school budget, she’ll have to cut it herself.

At least that’s the opinion of the Nashua Board of Education’s budget committee, which voted Thursday to not cut about 1 percent of its proposed budget as the mayor asked the school board to do last week.

Lozeau has asked all city departments to stay within a 1 percent increase from the previous year. In February, the school board approved an $88.5 million budget, about 2.5 percent more than last year, and last week, Lozeau asked the board to cut 1 percent of that, about $860,000, to bring it to a roughly 1.5 percent increase.

On Thursday the school board budget committee spent more than two hours talking about possible cuts provided by Superintendent Christopher Hottel that would have removed $867,043 from the proposed budget.

Hottel’s ideas included cutting $233,000 from middle school instruction, $213,000 in supplies and equipment from the plant operations budget and $150,000 from the special services budget, partly by cutting five teacher positions, according to documents Hottel gave to the committee.

The committee voted 6-3 to defeat a motion to adopt all of Hottel’s suggestions, except one to cut a nurse position. The school board could still vote to make the cuts but because the budget committee is made up of the entire school board, it’s likely that Thursday’s decision will stand.

Lozeau is slated to present her budget to the Board of Aldermen April 14.

The aldermen can cut the school budget’s bottom line, and Lozeau can do so before presenting it to them, but then it would need to be shipped back to the board, which would identify specific line items to trim.

Committee member Jack Kelley didn’t think the school board should even consider making cuts.

“I see no reason to look at this except that the mayor is looking for political coverage and doesn’t want to vote on this budget,” he said. “If we do this, we are giving up some of our authority as a board of education.”

Lozeau said last week that while she has the power to cut the school budget’s bottom line, she approached the Board of Education first as a courtesy and out of respect that it is in a better position to find savings.

“The point of my coming in is that I really believe this is a conversation,” Lozeau said. “It’s not a directive.”

Committee members Sandra Ziehm, William Mosher and Robert Hallowell voted in favor of the failed motion.

“I think we are in very difficult times, and I think the taxpayers are pushed to their limit,” Ziehm said.

Hallowell agreed.

“I believe looking at the economy, looking at where we are, we need to come in with a budget lower than where we are,” he said.

Others, including committee member and school board president Thomas Vaughan, said he could have stomached some cuts, but not nearly $1 million worth, which he said would have “systemic, long-term effects” on the school system.

Committee Chairman Richard Dowd voted against the motion to cut the budget and said the teachers contract the city approved last year is a large reason why it was impossible to stay to Lozeau’s 1 percent benchmark.

“We passed a budget that we felt what was needed for the school district,” he said. “Short of the teachers coming forward and structuring something to move some of that percentage out, this is what the city agreed to.”

The proposed budget, the one the committee recommended not changing, makes some reduction to overall staff, eliminating 33.5 paraprofessionals’ positions, eight teaching positions, two secretaries and five custodians.

It also includes about $500,000 in new positions: four math/literacy coaches ($182,400), four reading intervention teachers ($182,400), four technical integration specialists ($80,000) and two high school attendance officers ($54,400).

The budget includes contracted wage increases for union employees, including teachers. The cost to pay teachers next year will go up by 6.98 percent, or $3.2 million.

It also includes 3 percent raises for unaffiliated employees, which includes principals and administrators.

Hottel originally proposed an $88.4 million budget, a 2.36 percent increase, but board members opted to add $93,555 before approving it. That money would go to toward keeping a floating nurse position that was going to be cut and keeping summer school programs available for middle and high school students.

Under the current proposal, the middle schools would lose 10 teaching positions overall, but Hottel has said because of the drop in enrollment, there was room to make the cuts.