SANDOWN – On Thursday, Feb. 6, the Timberlane Performing Arts Center was more full than it’s been during a deliberative session in years, in large part because of an effort on behalf of Sandown resident and representative to the Timberlane budget committee Donna Green to get her neighbors to the session to cut the budget.
While her call to lower spending was supported by many, prompted in part due to a $6 per thousand increase in Sandown property taxes, there were also many who saw the effort as a threat to students’ education and turned out to fight potential cuts.
Green has been vocal this year about what she terms unrestrained spending at the schools and sent out a couple of mailers to all Sandown residents in preview of the session.
The meeting was delayed by 45 minutes from its scheduled start at 7 p.m. while attendees signed in. And the meeting itself lasted more than three hours.
Sandown saw 278 out of 3,643 registered voters at the session.
“This is just awesome. This is exactly what they had in mind when they say ‘the democratic process,’” School Administrative Unit (SAU) 55 Superintendent Earl Metzler said. “Now the question is ‘Are you ready to get down to work?’ Please keep an open mind and try to look at things from both sides.”
Metzler spoke about the balance between creating a budget for education with an eye to the tax rate, and argued that the number presented was vetted by the school board and budget committee and that he stood behind it.
“Stand for something or you’ll fall for everything,” said Metzler, saying it was a phrase he used to tell his students. “Well, I stand behind this district. I stand behind this work and I stand behind this budget. So I hope that you can find it in yourselves to put your kids in the center of that bull’s eye and do the very best we can for our children.”
School board chair Rob Collins spoke about efforts that have been made to improve academic excellence since Metzler arrived 17 months ago and how the school board hopes to continue that work.
Collins also spoke about finances, arguing that when the numbers are scrutinized, the district is running on relatively small annual increases. According to Collins, from 2004 to 2009 there was an average 6.46 percent annual budget increase, while in the years since then, it’s dropped to 2.1 percent (including the current proposal), about a $2 million increase a year. Collins argued that while the total increase since 2009 totals 13.2 percent, when adjusted for mandatory costs from downshifting from the state in retirement to health insurance and transportation, the remaining costs at the school take up only 4.88 percent or $2.9 million over those six years. That $2.9 million averages .80 percent a year.
Collins argued that those mandated increases were offset by drops in enrollment, fewer teachers, energy savings and the Timberlane Teachers’ Association’s foregoing a cost-of-living raise in that time. Collins also noted concern with how much Timberlane was paying its teachers compared to the state average.
SAU business administrator George Stokinger gave an overview of this year’s numbers. He emphasized that each year the budget is created nearly two years before it is spent.
The budget presented at Deliberative totals $66,452,054, with the default at $65,974,014. Stokinger gave an overview of the cost drivers, as previously reported by the Tri-Town Times.
When the budget article was opened up for public comment, Donna Green presented her own numbers, arguing that the budget can be reduced significantly without impacting education. Together with her husband, Arthur Green, who made a motion to that effect, she argued for a flat line budget. “Because I believe the district is on an unsustainable course,” Donna Green said.
The Greens’ amendment sought to bring the figure down by $2,452,054 to a total of $64,000,000.
Donna Green also took time to defend herself against those who think people who want to cut school funding are shortsighted and care only for their taxes. “Every aspect of my life and my children’s lives have been touched by the power of education,” she said. “No one understands the liberation of public education better than I do. And no sensible person wants education to fail or be starved of resources…Nothing I propose here will set back the advances Dr. Metzler has made since he arrived.”
Green argued that district costs have not kept pace with declining enrollment, and even with a 22 percent decrease in students, the district was adding teachers.
“We are operating on very ample and generous resources right now,” said Green, arguing that the problem was not resources, but management. “So what we’re seeing here is more and more money being invested for fewer and fewer students, and getting poorer and poorer results.”
She laid out how her number could be reached without impacting students or programs, largely with the removal of positions.
What followed was a back and forth between those who argued that it wasn’t that they didn’t care about education, but that the cost of the schools was exceeding their ability to pay, and the other side focusing on how any cuts would impact education.
Plaistow’s Brian Stack read from a prepared statement saying that while he appreciated the presentation given by Green, he thinks the 3,924 students in the district were left out. Stack said the future of each of those children could be impacted by the decisions made that night, and it was up to voters to speak for them.
Sandown’s Brenda Copp urged those in attendance to give the budget and the Greens’ amendment real thought.
“Please, no one bring up the children again. We all love the children. That’s not what it’s about here,” said Copp. “Please vote not only with your heart but your mind too.”
Atkinson’s John Sapia wanted details on how reducing the budget would enhance education. He said the guiding principle in discussions should be quality of education.
Arthur Green wanted a plan from the district about how the spending would enhance education, and at least an outline of how student/teacher ratios were arrived at. Even a small difference in that ratio, three-tenths of a percentage point as represented in the budget proposal, adds up to big dollars, he said.
“Do they recognize any limits at all in the resources the district ought to have?” he questioned.
To a question from the audience, Collins presented a slide detailing what a $2.5 million cut would mean to taxpayers. According to those numbers, a $2.5 million cut would add up to $400.60 on a Sandown house worth $300,000. In Atkinson that sum was $208.34, in Plaistow, $273.79, and in Danville, $437.63.
Collins also explained some of the intricacies of why teacher numbers may not have reduced in line with student population. In addition to extra courses at the high school, Collins said additional special education teachers are often brought in to keep those students in the district, ultimately a savings from busing them elsewhere.
When discussion on the amendment was eventually cut off, it failed with a vote of 239 in favor to 372 opposed. The budget as presented now goes to the warrant.
A motion made by Sapia to add $750,000 in additional resources for the high school athletic fields failed as well.
The secret ballot vote on the warrant is Tuesday, March 11.