Keene budget hearing

Following a public hearing Tuesday night, the Keene Board of Education made no changes to the district’s $69.2 million budget proposal for 2021-22, which reflects a minuscule increase over this year’s budget — designed, some board members say, to limit the tax burden for residents.

The board’s proposed budget is $1,339,876 less than the budget originally requested by district administrators, according to Kris Roberts, chairman of the board’s finance committee. With those cuts from the finance committee, Roberts said the $69,155,390 budget proposal for next year is a 0.005 percent increase over the current year’s operating budget.

In deciding to cut the administration’s original budget proposal, Roberts said the finance committee took into account the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Keene residents and businesses and the property tax implications the district’s budget has for them.

“The administration was really tight on this budget,” Roberts said during the hearing, which drew about 45 participants on Zoom. “They understood the circumstances, and they came in with a really tight budget, and a budget we would have liked to have supported. But because of, like I said, COVID-19 and other events, we knew … it would not be fair to taxpayers.”

As it stands currently, the district’s budget would represent a 5.75 percent increase on school property taxes in the city, or $106.35 on a house worth $100,000. Roberts noted that the tax increase is due to a loss of $2.2 million in state funding for next year.

“The increase in taxes is going to be the result of loss of revenue, not increase in expenses,” Roberts said.

Although the board ultimately did not change the budget Tuesday, two members tried to add some money back to the budget for renovations at Wheelock Elementary School. The district’s original proposal called for $1.7 million for various projects at Wheelock — an amount the district has budgeted for elementary school renovations annually, using the savings from the closure on Jonathan Daniels School in 2016 — but the budget committee cut $600,000 from that figure.

Board member Peter Starkey moved to add all $600,000 to the Wheelock renovation budget, which the board rejected 6-3. After that vote, board member Jaclyn Headings made what she called “a last-ditch effort for reinstating some funds for Wheelock,” and proposed adding $150,000 back to the budget. That motion failed 5-4.

Board Chairman George Downing voted for both measures, saying he believes the cut will make it more difficult to add the $600,000 for renovations at Wheelock into future budgets.

“I think if we cut it now, it’s going to be really, really hard to put it back in,” Downing said. “It’s going to end up being $1.1 [million] instead of $1.7 [million] going forward. So it’s my belief that we should keep it where it has been.”

Roberts, however, said keeping the $600,000 would have added to the property-tax burden and could have pushed voters to reject the budget proposal, in which case a $68,930,190 default budget would take effect.

“It might make the difference between the default budget and the regular budget wide enough that people would go for the default budget, and then we may have to cut the project even more,” Roberts said.

In addition to moving the unaltered budget proposal to the district’s Feb. 6 deliberative session, the board voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend contract proposals with two labor unions: the Keene Association of Principals and Supervisors and the Keene Paraprofessionals Association.

The budget proposal doesn’t include the costs of any new employment contracts, which are voted on separately. If those contracts are approved, the costs are added to the 2021-22 operating budget and incorporated into the budget in following years. The school board and bargaining units have already ratified the two contracts on this year’s warrant, Downing said.

The Keene Association of Principals and Supervisors represents 23 people in management and leadership positions within the district. The costs for pay and benefit increases in the first year of the contract are $62,468, with a four-year total increase of $668,521.

The Keene Paraprofessionals Association represents 55 full-time and 31 part-time district employees. The costs for pay and benefit increases in the first year of the contract are $61,415, with a four-year total increase of $634,291.

Voters can discuss and amend the budget proposal and other warrant articles at a deliberative session, slated for Feb. 6 at 9 a.m., before voting them up or down at the polls in March. The school board is moving forward with plans to hold an in-person deliberative session in the Keene High School auditorium, which should provide enough room for social distancing.

Elections will be held March 9. In addition to the budget and warrant articles, six of the Keene school board’s nine seats will be on the ballot. The filing period for open school district positions begins Wednesday and runs through next Friday, Jan. 29.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.