'Vote yes'

Olivia Belanger / Sentinel Staff

Backers of a smaller Winchester School District budget outside the polls March 10. The budget they advocated for passed, and the school board last week approved a round of cuts to accommodate that.

WINCHESTER — To meet the budget voters passed earlier this month, the Winchester School Board has approved a list of cuts that includes transportation for high school students, all athletic programs and field trips, and 23 staff positions, while reducing kindergarten to a half-day.

The $11.27 million operating budget for the 2020-21 year passed with just over half of the vote at the polls March 10. The school board, which had originally requested just over $12.8 million, didn’t support the new figure, which was the result of an amendment at the February deliberative session.

Board Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said the cuts approved by the board at its meeting Thursday night are nearly identical to what had already been suggested at previous meetings. After the $1.6 million amendment at the deliberative session, she said, the administration worked with the school board and the budget committee to identify areas to cut.

“We spent five weeks explaining to people that this would be the impact,” she said. “... There are only so many places to go when you’re dealing with an increase to the budget that was tuition-driven.”

The original proposed operating budget of $12,840,830 — which lacked the budget committee’s support would have been 10.7 percent higher than the roughly $11.6 million figure passed by voters in 2019. Residents at the deliberative session said the tax impact could hurt people on fixed incomes and argued rising education costs haven’t yielded results, pointing to low test scores.

Picard said the board has been exploring ways to improve test scores at least since she joined four years ago. The district is about halfway through a three-year development program that includes establishing more consistent leadership and increasing the school’s reading specialist to full time. That position will now be reduced back to part-time with the budget cuts.

Picard said there was a misconception that the board was “throwing money at the budget.” Instead, she said, about $890,000 of the increase was related to tuition. Winchester will be sending a near-record number of students to Keene High School, where the per-pupil cost has gone up. There was also a slight increase to special education for out-of-district placements and transportation, Picard said.

In anticipation of the tuition costs, she said, the administration had already tightened its belt before voters lopped nearly $1.6 million off the budget.

To accommodate the new budget, in addition to kindergarten being reduced from full-day to half, the pre-screening process to help teachers get acquainted with students will cease.

Transportation for students going to Keene High School was axed, along with rides for kids living within two miles of Winchester School. A description of the cuts from Thursday’s board meeting estimates this will save $170,000.

Picard said nearly a quarter of the school’s workforce will be eliminated. Outright cuts are a part-time Medicaid billing clerk, one full-time and one part-time custodian, a special-education teacher, an integration specialist, a crossing guard, nine paraprofessionals and eight certified teachers, which includes a half-day foreign language teacher. Reductions from full- to part-time include a school secretary, an occupational therapy position and the reading specialist.

The staff cuts save more than $1 million, according to the meeting document.

Other cuts include:

All of the district’s athletic programs and field trips;

Stipends that had been proposed for school board members (they don’t have them now);

Raises for the district’s 19 non-union staff members, such as the principal, vice principal, facilities director and superintendent;

Funding to cover free breakfast and lunch for all students, in the event that the district doesn’t receive its grant for the program again; and

Supplies, including stationery and technology materials.

Picard said the board approved the cuts 3-2, with herself, Tina Perkins and Todd Kilanski in favor. Dissenting were Valerie Cole and James Rokes Jr.

As the parent of a middle-school athlete and a soon-to-be freshman, Picard said she’s struggled for the past several weeks.

“I never wanted to vote to make those cuts,” Picard said, but added that it would have been irresponsible and inappropriate to defy or ignore the voters.

Even with these cuts, next year’s budget is still about $100,000 over, she noted, and the board and administration are “literally nickel-and-diming” to trim it further.

“That is such a significant gouge to the budget when you have so many things that are contractual that you cannot impact,” she said.

Picard argued that the changes to the school district’s staff and services will affect the students, who will have larger class sizes and fewer enrichment opportunities, as well as the community as a whole. Many families will have to arrange transportation for their kids, and parents of kindergartners who may have thought they could save money on childcare will now have to pick them up halfway through the day.

Losing the sports programs will be hard, too, she said, pointing out that people were “finally coming out to the stands” and supporting their teams.

“The feeling for people in town who voted no, who supported the school budget, is grief,” Picard said, before pointing to the state’s education-funding system. “… The reality is that the problem goes above us, way above us. And until New Hampshire figures that out, this divide will continue.”

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SierraHubbardKS.