Reviewing the budget

Monadnock Regional School District Budget Committee Chairman Wayne S. Lechlider, far right, reads the draft warrant at Thursday night’s annual budget hearing at the Monadnock Regional Middle/High School library in Swanzey Center. Also in the photo are, from left, Superintendent Lisa A. Witte; Brian Bohannon, school board representative to the budget committee; and budget committee member Douglas Bersaw.

SWANZEY CENTER — Monadnock Regional School District administrators and budget committee members found themselves at odds Thursday night over the district’s default budget for the coming school year.

This proved one of the few sources of contention at Thursday’s annual budget hearing, although petition warrant articles to change the apportionment formula and disband the budget committee could stoke more debate in the months ahead.

By a weighted vote of 8.132 to 2.462, the budget committee set the default budget at $31,828,779. That figure includes $970,000 that gets reimbursed by federal and state grants.

The default budget is the minimum amount of money the district would need for its operations, if voters don’t pass the proposed 2019-20 operating budget at the annual meeting in March. The default number is final and cannot be amended by the school board or the voters.

But the figure the budget committee set Thursday does not account for increases from contractual obligations the district must account for, Superintendent Lisa A. Witte said after the meeting. Some of these obligations include health insurance rate increases, transportation contract costs, contributions to pension funds and so-called “lane changes” — salary increases to teachers who advanced their education, she said. Witte said the default budget should have been set at $32,743,491, or $914,712 higher than the budget committee’s number.

If voters opt for the default budget, Witte said after the meeting, the district would have to resort to staff reductions and other cuts to accommodate the figure.

Budget committee Chairman Wayne S. Lechlider of Swanzey said at the meeting that the committee factored these increases into its final figure. After a short introduction describing the default budget, school board Chairwoman Lisa Steadman of Troy, who was in the audience, asked Lechlider about the salary increases.

“We are contractually obligated to offer lane changes,” she said.

“On what?” Lechlider asked. “There’s no contract.”

Witte interjected.

“The lane changes are contractually obligated even if we’re in status quo,” she said.

Last year, voters approved a one-year contract for the Monadnock District Education Association, a union that includes teachers. The union has negotiated a two-year contract that will appear on the warrant for voter feedback first at the deliberative session next month, and then at the annual meeting in March.

Lechlider said the budget committee plugged in a figure it was given by school administration for contractual obligations, but Witte countered that the figure the administration gave to the budget committee did not include contractual increases.

Thursday’s meeting, which took place in the Monadnock Regional Middle/High School library, drew a handful of residents, and most school board members. Monadnock covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy.

Later in the meeting, the budget committee voted 8.396 to 2.98 to set a proposed operating budget of $32,444,093, a figure which, like the default budget, includes $970,000 in expenses the district gets reimbursed for. The school board, which met earlier in the evening, backed the proposal, which is 0.47 percent higher than the $32,293,181 figure voters approved last year.

After dealing with the budget, the committee voted to support all of the other non-petition articles on the draft warrant as written, except for a proposed $850,000 renovation to expand the metal and wood shop areas in the middle/high school. The renovation would allow the district to enroll more students in wood and metal working classes and make that area wheelchair accessible, Witte said.

“It’s a great idea, but the timing is terrible,” Lechlider said, adding that he couldn’t support the project because he planned to back other big-ticket items, such as the contracts.

The warrant articles committee members supported included the teachers contract, and a proposed two-year contract for the Monadnock Educational Support Staff Association.

Budget committee members did not comment or vote on two petition warrant articles. One article would change the formula that determines the amount of money member towns pay to the district from 25 percent based on property values and 75 percent based on enrollment to a 50-50 split. Apportionment has been a divisive topic in the district. Last year, Troy voters tried to change the formula to a 50-50 split, but the measure failed 1,505 to 1,126 at the polls.

Another petition article seeks to disband the budget committee. The committee sets the proposed and default budgets for the district.

Voters can discuss and amend the warrant at a deliberative session slated for Feb. 2 at 10 a.m. at the middle/high school. The warrant will then go to polls on March 12.

This article was altered to reflect that the budget committee set the proposed budget at the meeting.

Liora Engel-Smith can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or lsmith@keenesentin el.com.

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