For the last few months, I’ve been working with the InterTown Record, writing stories about the Kearsarge Regional School District’s school board and its work on the 2017-18 school year budget.
Here’s the story that appeared on the front page today, January 10, 2017.
KRSD leaders boosts new ‘third’ budget
By Ray Carbone
NEW LONDON – Residents of the Kearsarge Regional School District joined with district leaders at the annual deliberative district meeting Saturday saying they are concerned that voters who go to the polls on Election Day will be confused when they see three different proposed budgets for the 2017-18 school year.
The three budgets that will appear on the March 14 ballot include two that have the same bottom line – $42,492,091, as crafted by the school board and approved by the Municipal Budget Committee (MBC) recently – as well as a third option that was suggested at the meeting and unanimously approved by all in attendance.
The new, amended budget is $350,000 less than the original versions and all school board and MBC members support the lower figure.
The issue arose after significant problems were discovered with the septic system at Kearsarge Regional High School, where Saturday’s meeting was held.
Joe Mendola, a school board member from Warner, said that the budget-crafting process was well underway when the board began reviewing the issue.
He said the system “is 12 years past its useful life,” he explained. “And we’re spending $90,000 a year to keep it going.”
The board had originally added $350,000 to the 2017-18 operating budget to pay for a new wastewater treatment facility, but Mendola suggested using a building contingency fund that had approximately $800,000 in it.
“When you have a capital project (like this), the prudent thing to do is to either pay cash or borrow money,” he noted.
The contingency fund is supposed to “smooth out” unforeseen financial bumps, like the septic issue.
“But it wasn’t that easy,” Mendola said. “It turns out that there are a number of strings attached to the fund and we needed approval from the state’s Secretary of Education (Virginia Barry).”
Superintendent Winfried Feneberg wrote a letter to Barry requesting approval to use the contingency fund for the project, but it wasn’t until early December that the board learned that the idea had been okayed, Mendola explained.
The board could have then removed the $350,000 from its operating budget, but by that time, the group had already submitted its final proposal to the MBC. Since there was no time for the budget group to review the new $350,000-less figure, the board decided to revise the figure down at the deliberative session.
The amended third budget was unanimously approved, 126-0, but some residents still have reservations.
Charlie Forsberg of Sutton suggested that if the school board had supported using the contingency funds, it should have lowered the budget sooner. He called the amended budget proposal nonsense.
“It’s confusing to the voters and it’s deceptive,” Forsberg said.
Another Sutton resident, Martha Hunt, was concerned that voters would be baffled by seeing the original two budgets – one advanced by the school board and the same one, listed separately, supported by the budget committee – alongside the third, amended budget.
“This is going to be extremely confusing,” she said.
Forsberg suggested that the two original budgets could draw enough votes to defeat the new, lower amended budget.
Several school board members suggested that it was up to residents who were at the meeting, and to the local media, to make sure their neighbors understood the budget options.
Another issue, raised by resident Maureen Prohl of New London, concerned a $160,000 budget item that would pay for the demolition of most of the old New London Central School building – also known as the 1941 building – as well as the creation of a new professional development center in the space that once served as the school’s cafeteria.
Prohl said she’d rather see all of the 1941 structure demolished, and that she was skeptical about the development project.
“I’m clearly not in favor of it,” she said. “I don’t feel we need a professional development center in our school district. We have ample space in the new middle school.”
School Board Chairman Ken Bartholomew of Warner explained that the budget item would pay for the demolition of most of the 1941 building, at a cost of $130,000, as well as $20,000 for repairs to the fire suppression and HVAC circulation systems in the old cafeteria section, and $10,000 for an architectural study for the remaining space.
The board has not made any final decision on how the retained space will be used, he added.
Later in the meeting, Bartholomew addressed the increased pressure on local taxpayers to fund the district.
“Our revenue sources from other areas – the state and federal governments – have gone down (in recent years),” he said.
For instance, the state no longer supports the employee retirement fund or offers fiscal support for building project.
In fact, although it technically funds “catastrophic aid” to help districts deal with unexpected significant jumps in the costs of providing for special need students, it does not put money for the fund in the state’s budget.
“People think that if the budget stays the same, our taxes will stay the same,” he lamented. “But the money from Concord and from Washington (is decreasing).”
Ray Carbone, who lives in Warner, is an independent editor and writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org