School budget proposal gets OK

MERRIMACK – Driven by rising health insurance benefits and costs related to opening a new school, the proposed school district operating budget for next year is up 9.87 percent.

The School Board on Monday voted 5-0 to accept a proposed operating budget for 2004-05 of $53.04 million, up $4.7 million from the current budget. The budget does not include warrant articles – which the board will discuss later – but it does take in account a net reduction of 6.5 professional and support staff positions.

This is the first time in recent memory that the school district is proposing to cut positions, Superintendent Marge Chiafery told the board.

School administrators had a proposed budget ready in early fall, board Chairman Ken Coleman noted. In October, residents were hit with tax bills up an average of 19 percent, and administrators went back to the drawing board to rework the budget to hold down costs as much as possible, he said.

The end result was a proposed budget with a net reduction of staff despite 16.5 positions being added to staff a new middle school set to open in September. To compensate, 23 other jobs will be cut.“We’re opening up a new school, and we’re still having a net loss of staff,” board member Rosemarie Rung said.

Coleman, Rung and other board members praised the work of administrators in going through the budget process twice to hold the line on spending as much as they could.

“I can stand before my constituents in the town of Merrimack and say this budget deserves a positive vote,” Rung said.

The budget will be presented to residents at the Deliberative Session and for vote annual School District Meeting in April.

Administrators will look to attrition as much as possible to make the staff cuts, but some school employees will be laid off, Chiafery said.

Positions that will be cut from professional staff are a high school business teacher; a half-time photography teacher and a half-time English teacher at the high school; two in-school suspension teachers, one at the high school and one at the middle school; 11 middle school reading teachers (the curriculum will be restructured with the opening of the new school) and an elementary school guidance counselor.

Also, five parent-educators will be eliminated, and one instructional supervisor will be lost.

Other staff will be relocated to the new middle school, but principals, specialists and a custodial staff will have to be hired – a total of 16.5 positions – to staff the new school.

“The administration made a very, very difficult decision,” Chiafery said of the layoffs.

The money saved by cutting staff was offset by contractual increases – most notably in health-insurance and other benefits, up 26.5 percent, or $2.1 million. Other increases were an additional $199,000 in transportation costs and increases in special education spending.

What hurt the most, school officials said, was a projected loss of state aid for education: the town is slated to get $2.5 million less next year.

“It really is the loss of aid that is crippling us,” Chiafery said.

“At a time when we are doing some of our greatest work, we don’t have the funding we need,” she said, noting that the town is opening its first new school in three decades.