Monadnock Regional Middle/High School

At Saturday’s deliberative session, voters in the Monadnock Regional School District will be able to weigh in on a budget process that has grown contentious between the school board and budget committee.

The dispute between the two elected bodies emerged during the budget committee’s Jan. 14 meeting, when the group voted narrowly to cut $855,000, or 2.6 percent, from the board’s $33.3 million budget proposal. Last week, the school board voted overwhelmingly against recommending the reduced budget figure to voters.

Several budget committee members have argued the cut would help the district avoid a large surplus for the fifth straight year, while school leaders say that budgeting for the highest potential costs is the most prudent path, and warn that the reduced budget proposal, if enacted, could lead to staff and programming cuts.

“It’s responsible budgeting practice, especially when you’re talking about taxpayer money, in my view, to budget for the worst-case scenario, so that you’re not going back and asking for additional money because you’ve run into a deficit,” Superintendent Lisa Witte said in an interview this week.

But Dan Coffman of Swanzey, the budget committee member who moved to reduce the original budget proposal, said the district is not legally required to plan for the worst-case scenario. Coffman said at the committee’s Jan. 14 meeting, which followed the annual public budget hearing, that he calculated the lower budget by averaging the district’s surpluses over the past four years — which have ranged from $1.3 million to $2.4 million — and cutting that figure roughly in half.

He added that the district “would figure out a way” to avoid cutting staff or supplies if the lower budget passes. But after going through the decreased budget proposal with other administrators, Witte said “there’s simply not a way to do it without impacting positions, people and programs.” The school board would be responsible for approving any cuts after voters pass a final budget.

If voters at the polls in March reject the final proposed operating budget that comes out of Saturday’s deliberative session, the district’s default budget of $33.6 million, a 0.77 percent increase over the board’s initial proposal, will take effect.

In addition to disagreeing on the operating budget, the school board and budget committee are split on an $840,000 project that would replace unit air ventilators in about 25 rooms total between Gilsum STEAM Academy and Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center. The school board recommends the warrant article that would fund the project, while the budget committee voted against doing the same.

If the article passes, the project likely would be completed in the summer of 2022, and involve the needed replacement of ventilation systems that were installed in the 1980s, according to Janel Morin, the district’s business administrator. The ventilators work fine for now, but “they’re getting towards the end of their working life,” Morin said. The district wants to replace them before they break down, she explained, potentially leading to an emergency situation where they need to be replaced, but the district doesn’t have the funds to do so.

These renovations were scheduled before the coronavirus pandemic, as part of the district’s capital improvement plan, and therefore Witte said they do not count as COVID-related expenses eligible for federal relief funding.

The replacement of the ventilators at Gilsum STEAM Academy began last year, after school district voters approved a warrant article with funds to start the project there and complete a similar project at Cutler Elementary School in West Swanzey, Morin said. If the warrant article this year does not pass, the district would not be able to move forward with completing the ventilation replacement in Gilsum and beginning the project at the middle/high school.

“We would not be able to find the money in other parts of the budget,” Morin said. “We just wouldn’t do the work. We would have to try again next year.”

Budget Committee Chairman Adam Hopkins of Troy said committee members had various reasons for voting against recommending the ventilation project. The committee rejected the article by a weighted vote of 6.992 to 2.376.

“It wasn’t a unanimous decision, and there were different thoughts expressed as to why not to recommend the article by multiple committee members,” Hopkins said in an email this week.

For example, Coffman expressed concern that previous building projects that voters approved have not been completed, according to the minutes of the Jan. 14 budget committee meeting. Committee member Wayne Lechlider of Swanzey said at the meeting that he would not support any articles besides the operating budget, though he would reconsider that stance if the budget proposal remains the same after the deliberative session.

The deliberative session is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Saturday at four separate locations, based on voters’ town of residence, connected by a Zoom videoconference.

Swanzey and Richmond residents will attend the session at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School; Fitzwilliam residents at Emerson Elementary School; Gilsum and Roxbury residents at Gilsum STEAM Academy; and Troy residents at Troy Elementary School.

Masks and social distancing will be required at each location, unless medical documentation is provided showing the ability to wear a mask is limited. Anyone can watch or listen to the Zoom meeting remotely, but residents will need to be physically present to speak and vote.

Also on the warrant:

Elementary school consolidation and renovation: Voters will be asked whether to raise $300,000 for engineering and design work on a plan to consolidate some of the district’s elementary schools. That plan, which the school board approved in October, would combine Swanzey’s two elementary schools into one and also renovate schools in Fitzwilliam, Gilsum and Troy.

Specialists contract: Voters will be asked whether to support a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Specialists of the Monadnock District, which represents psychologists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists. The contract would include wage and benefit increases estimated at $33,269 for 2021-22 and a three-year estimated total increase of $76,692.

Monadnock District Education Association contract: Voters will be asked whether to support a one-year collective bargaining agreement with the Monadnock District Education Association, which represents teachers, guidance counselors, librarians and nurses. The contract would include wage and benefit increases estimated at $315,447, a 2.3-percent increase over the current year.

Support staff contract: Voters will be asked whether to support a two-year collective bargaining agreement with the Monadnock Educational Support Staff Association, which represents administrative assistants, paraprofessionals, custodians and maintenance workers. The contract would include wage and benefit increases estimated at $91,431 for 2021-22 and a two-year estimated total increase of $186,797.

After getting the opportunity to amend the articles at Saturday’s deliberative session, Monadnock district voters will make their final decisions on the warrant at the polls on March 9.

Sentinel staff writer Caleb Symons contributed to this report. Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.