Ahead of a public hearing next week, the Keene Board of Education’s finance committee will consider a $69.2 million administrative budget request this weekend that includes a nearly $1.1 million increase in special education costs.
Budget documents available online detail the district administration’s requests. At its meeting Saturday, the finance committee will make its recommendation to the school board, which will then present a draft budget proposal at a public hearing at the Keene High School auditorium Tuesday at 7 p.m., Chief Financial Officer Tim Ruehr said.
The budget request also includes money for a new track at Alumni Field, dam restoration, a workplace safety position and a behavioral interventionist at the middle school, among other items.
The administration’s requested operating budget of $69,228,907 is a 3.7 percent increase over the $66,758,527 operating budget voters approved for 2019-20 in March 2019.
The operating budget figure, typically one of the first articles on a warrant, doesn’t include any new employment contracts, which are voted on separately. If those contracts are approved, the costs are added to the coming year’s operating budget, as well as following years.
This year’s warrant is slated to include four contracts with labor unions, if successfully negotiated: the Keene Educational Office Personnel Group, the Keene Clinical Service Providers, the Keene Custodians and the Association of Keene Tutors. It’s unclear how much each of these contracts would cost because negotiations are still pending.
The district, however, compares the administration’s requested budget for the upcoming year to all spending measures approved on the 2019 warrant, which totaled $67,399,049. By the district’s math, the administration’s proposed budget would reflect an increase of $1,829,858, or 2.71 percent.
One of the biggest jumps in the administration’s budget request comes from an uptick in out-of-district placements for special education students, accounting for an additional $862,189 over the previous budget, along with another $208,523 slated for transporting these students.
Ruehr, the district’s CFO, said a nearly $1.1 million spike in special education costs isn’t typical, and it’s concerning because it indicates more students are needing services that the district isn’t capable of providing. If that doesn’t change, the district could see more money going to tuition outside of its facilities in the future.
Administrators’ request for building maintenance and grounds is just over $9 million, a combined $1.1 million, or 14.4 percent, more than the current budget. That would include $450,000 for the Wilson Pond Dam restoration; $350,000 to replace the track at Keene High School; and $116,545 to hire a safety officer.
Ruehr said the high school’s six-lane track is damaged and considered unsafe, even for practice, so the team shares Keene Middle School’s eight-lane track. Replacement at Alumni Field would allow students to train at the high school, Ruehr said, though competitions would likely still be held at the middle school.
Though the name might sound like a police-oriented job, the safety officer would inspect buildings and educate employees about common hazards, such as slips and falls and keeping fire exits clear, Ruehr said.
Another request for the middle school is $81,017 to fund a behavioral interventionist like the ones at Wheelock and Franklin elementary schools, Ruehr said.
There’s also a $117,000 increase in legal costs over the budget voters approved last year.
“The Keene School District has experienced a huge uptick in the number of actions filed by unions, particularly [the Keene Education Association], and that has led to legal fees this year running about twice what they should,” Ruehr said.
The teachers union filed an unfair labor practice against the district in August, accusing the school district of intentionally delaying early-retirement payments to save money. It filed another in September alleging that two employees were unfairly disciplined by the district under a federal student-privacy law after communicating concerns about employee safety.