The Monadnock Regional School District could eliminate up to eight full-time positions to meet the $32.5 million budget voters approved last week, which marks an $855,000 reduction to the district’s original budget proposal.

Superintendent Lisa Witte laid out the potential reductions during Tuesday night’s school board meeting. But between now and the next meeting April 6, when board members will vote on nominations for staff positions for next year, Witte said district administrators will continue to work to identify potential cuts and cost savings to avoid axing as many jobs.

Those savings include roughly $115,000 in staff health insurance costs, caused by a rate increase lower than the budget planned for, which the district learned of Tuesday afternoon, Business Administrator Janel Morin said during the meeting. Additionally, the board on Tuesday voted unanimously to allow the district to offer early retirement incentives for more experienced staff members, which could also lead to some savings, Witte said.

“The question becomes how much savings that could then translate into positions,” Witte said of the potential early retirements. “It could be one; it could be two. Again, until we see uptake, I can’t really predict. But there is the potential to free up additional funds moving forward, so that we may be able to mitigate some of the impact on the [full-time positions] that are on that proposal.”

Monadnock’s budget committee cut 2.6 percent from the district’s original proposal at the group’s meeting in January. At that meeting, and the district’s annual deliberative session, several budget committee members argued the cut would help the district avoid running a large surplus, as it has for the past four years. Witte has maintained from the beginning that the reduction would result in staff and programming cuts.

Witte said Tuesday that district administrators have already spoken with people whose jobs may be affected by the budget cuts. But she also noted that some of the positions that currently are slated to be cut are open right now, as the district hasn’t been able to find enough candidates to fill all job openings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we talk positions, we talk positions,” Witte said. “Ultimately, they may impact individuals, but not necessarily.”

Witte said Monadnock administrators will continue to look at potential budget reductions and present the board with a revised list of recommended cuts — taking into account factors like the lower health-care costs and early retirements — ahead of the April 6 meeting.

Weighing full reopening

At that meeting, the board also will vote on whether to fully reopen schools in the district beginning May 3. Board members discussed but did not make any decisions on the topic at Tuesday’s meeting, where Witte presented a list of considerations schools would need to weigh before switching from the district’s current hybrid model.

Throughout the school year, students in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — have attended school in person two days per week and done remote learning the rest of the week. Families also have the option for their children to learn fully remotely.

That option will continue through the end of the school year, Witte said, and if the board votes to move away from the hybrid model, administrators recommend bringing students back to classes four days a week and keeping Friday as a remote-learning day.

In the meantime, Witte said physical space within the schools is the biggest challenge to bringing students back for more in-person classes. In her presentation to the board, she said many classrooms would be able to accommodate 3 feet of physical distancing between students, which is what the state health department currently recommends, but only some classrooms would be able to allow for the 6 feet of distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

District employees, parents and students who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting were split on when schools should fully reopen. Erin Kelley of Swanzey, who is a district parent and a teacher at the high school, said she doesn’t want to move away from the hybrid model until a majority of school staff is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Every employee deserves to feel safe in their workplace. Every parent or guardian deserves to be confident that their school, that their children, are safe,” Kelley said. “And COVID-19 is a clear danger. And the closer we are to other people, the greater the risk of contracting the virus.

“... Without question, a full return to a traditional format is what we all deeply desire,” she continued. “But I really cannot support such a move until it is safe.”

Meanwhile, Dan Coffman of Swanzey, a Monadnock parent who also serves on the district’s budget committee, said he believes students and staff can return safely now.

“We’ve had a year of these kids not being in a full school environment, both educationally and socially, from a sports and extracurricular perspective, etc.,” he said. “We’ve got to get these kids in school.”

The next Monadnock school board meeting, which will be held via Zoom, is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on April 6.

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