School sports program gets reprieve

NASHUA – The Board of Education wasted little time killing a controversial proposal to eliminate interscholastic athletics at the city’s middle schools.

At Thursday night’s meeting, the board’s first action on the proposed school district budget for next year was to request that the administration work with the athletic department to come up with a new proposal to meet the department’s 4 percent cut, a reduction of $37,531.

The new proposal would not be able to include eliminating middle school sports. The revised proposal would be due back to the board by the end of April and would require board approval.

The board’s vote Thursday night was unanimous.

“They have plenty of time to work it out, but they have to work it out in a way that the board accepts it,” said Tom Vaughan, president of the Board of Education.

Vaughan made the motion, which also required that the school district inform the Tri-County League of middle schools that it intends on being a part of the league next year.

As part of the proposed budget for next year, a committee of teachers, coaches, administrators, parents and other community representatives made a recommendation to eliminate the current middle school sports program.

That would be a cut of $98,763 and would have meant that the middle schools would no longer be affiliated with the Tri-County League.

In lieu of the current program, a middle school youth program would have been created, at a cost of $46,232.

That program, according to the proposal, would have been held two days a week at each school and would have included a competitive sports program within the school, as well mentoring for students and field trips to high school sporting events.

Peter Casey, the district’s director of athletics, said one of the primary benefits of the new program is that it would have allowed more students to take part in competitive sports.

The proposal outraged many in the city’s sports community. At a packed public hearing earlier this week, dozens of parents, students and coaches urged the board not to let it pass.

The vote by the board Thursday night now makes it certain that it would not, at least not next year.

The board’s vote also required that administration, including Casey, review the state of the athletics program and develop a written proposal for any needed changes to it by the end of June. Any proposed changes would not take effect until the 2011-12 school year.

After dealing with sports, the board took additional action on Superintendent Christopher Hottel’s budget, adding $93,555, bringing the proposed budget to $88.5 million, a 2.47 percent increase.

That would add a $45,600 floating nurse position back into the budget, a position that was added last year but was on the chopping block for next year.

It also adds $46,600, which would keep summer school programs for middle and high school students in the budget for next year.

Board members Robert Hallowell and Sandra Ziehm voted against adding more money to the budget.

Hallowell said he would have voted in favor of the additions had they come at the expense of something else in the budget.

Hallowell proposed eliminating funding for the middle schools to offset the increase by eliminating four proposed reading intervention teachers and an arts teachers. The board voted against Hallowell’s proposal.

Mayor Donnalee Lozeau has requested that city departments keep within a 1 percent budget increase for next year. It is ultimately up to the Board of Aldermen to determine how much funding each department receives.

The proposed budget has not yet been finalized. The board could still make more changes at its next budget meeting scheduled for Feb. 19.

There was also discussion at the meeting about the 10 teaching positions being eliminated at the middle schools. Board member Sandra Ziehm raised concerns about whether the schools could withstand that cut.

Going over enrollment data, Hottel explained that the middle schools have had a decrease of 600 students over the past four years, from 3,246 students to 2,633 students.

“There is room to cut positions at the middle school,” Hottel said.

The district would also eliminate 33 paraprofessional positions in the budget. There would also be several new positions, including two high school attendance officers and four high school math and literacy coaches.

The budget also includes increasing the cost of high school bus passes, from $50 to $65, which would bring in an additional $26,340 in revenue.

Currently, any revenue generated by the school district goes to the city, but Jim Mealey, chief operating officer, said Lozeau has said she is open to letting the district keep revenue that offsets budget cuts.

The integrity of the school district’s budget process has also come under question at recent meetings. Some teachers who sat on budget committees said the committees were given directives from administration on what to eliminate.

Hottel has denied those claims, saying that budget committees were given full discretion when determining what to eliminate in their departments if cuts were to be necessary.