School budget proposal passes test

MERRIMACK – Budget season has officially begun in the Merrimack School District.

On Monday, administrators handed the school board a proposed $63.62 million budget, up about $903,000 – 1.4 percent – from current spending.

Superintendent Marge Chiafery and business administrator Matt Shevenell pointed out this week that the proposal meets a school board directive to be under the default budget, which is the current year’s spending, plus contractual obligations but minus one-time expenditures. The proposal is about $166,000 below default.

“In light of the economy, we want to be bare-bones . . . and get through what we need to get through,” Shevenell said.

“We tried to be exceedingly balanced, knowing the time in which we live, while still moving things forward,” Chiafery later added.

Most of the $903,000 increase comes from carry-over items, such as health-insurance costs, retirement costs, the current teachers contract, rate increases for out-of-district special education placements, and a built-in increase in the transportation contract, administrators said.

Three “big ticket” items are also folded into the increase.

The first is $150,000 for computers, which would replace eight-year-old machines in laboratories of the four elementary schools. Students receive instruction in those laboratories, Chiafery said, and need updated equipment to help meet a statewide computer literacy requirement.

The second request is for a new library automation system, which would cost $99,000, Chiafery said. The current system, which organizes all library functions, was purchased in 2002, and its warranty has expired. Software is no longer available for that system, and it hasn’t been upgraded in two years.

The last is a request to continue three programs targeting at-risk students.

Merrimack has been designated as a district “in need of improvement” based on statewide testing scores, Chiafery said. In the past, programs to help those students have been funded by grants, but those sources are drying up.

Administrators are asking for $85,000 to fund teachers in order to continue the programs, which include: A summer reading session for kids in fifth grade or lower.

A four-week summer program to help at-risk eighth-graders make a smoother transition to high school.

The evening academy, which helps at-risk high school students recover credits and graduate on time, or close to it.

Administrators also propose three warrant articles separate from the budget: $170,000 to fix an unexpected roof problem at the high school; $165,000 for asbestos treatment at Thorntons Ferry School, which is part of a long-range, districtwide removal program; and an undetermined amount for support staff salaries. A contract is being negotiated now.

The support staff union represents custodians, mechanics, paraprofessionals, food service workers, assistants and tutors.

In addition, the school board will also have to consider staff changes proposed by the administration, which conducted a personnel review earlier this year in conjunction with the New Hampshire School Boards Association and the New England School Development Council.

Next year, the district is expected to lose 117 students overall, with the biggest chunk – 61 – from the upper elementary school, Chiafery said.

With that in mind, she said, administrators propose eliminating five positions: two teachers from the upper elementary school, where enrollment is declining; one at Thorntons Ferry, in order to keep student/teacher ratios consistent; and two from the high school, where student interest in French and family and consumer science is dwindling.

At the same time, administrators propose opening three other positions: two fourth-grade teachers, one at Mastricola Elementary and one at Reeds Ferry, and a behavioral specialist for the upper elementary school. Those positions could be filled by redeploying current staff or new hires.

Tonight, the board will hear from department heads and administrators from the lower-level schools about their specific budgets.

On Dec. 9, budget presentations will be delivered by personnel from library and media services, special services, Merrimack High School and the district’s central office.