March 26. 2014 7:37PM

Officials still looking for cuts to school budget

Union Leader Correspondent

NASHUA — The board of education has rescheduled the final public hearing on the 2015 school budget for April 9 in order buy some time to make cuts and close the roughly $1.5 million gap between the district’s plan and $99 million the city has proposed.Board members have been working with Superintendent Mark Conrad’s revised $101 million budget recommendation and an additional list of recommended cuts of teachers and staff that would shave another million dollars from that bottom line. Although they have cut about $450,000 in classroom supplies, technology hardware, library books, professional development for teachers, secretaries, and salaries for new positions, members are now facing the prospect of laying off six high school teachers, two middle school teachers and several guidance and career counselors.On Wednesday night, board members raised concerns about David Murotake’s tabled proposal to raise athletic fees to cover 35 percent of the more than $1 million athletic budget. The district currently charges fees that were set in 2010 in order to raise 25 percent, or about $250,000, of the cost of the athletic program. Those fees have generated only about $150,000 in revenue.Although students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program are exempt from athletic fees, members felt higher fees would be a hardship for many families, and some worried participation in sports programs would decline.In response, Murotake amended his original motion and proposed raising fees enough to cover $91,600 of the sports budget which would free up enough money to save the jobs of two middle school teachers.“We have an extensive program that covers a variety of sports that you often find only at private schools,” said Murotake. “I have no doubt the athletic program has tremendous benefits of keeping kids in school.”Still, Murotake said that because the board was facing budget problems, and because members were trying to keep the impact on taxpayers to a minimum, it was time to consider some type of increase.

But other members felt there was no way to guarantee the district would meet that revenue goal, and the board voted against the amended proposal.“We have an athletic fee that’s working,” said board member Robert Hallowell, who added a small increase of existing fees might be acceptable. Students currently pay $50 for track, $150 for football and $500 for ice hockey.Most of those fees seem reasonable,” said Hallowell. “I know there are other districts where fees are much higher, but I don’t want to go there.”

Board members did agree to scrap plans to hire a part-time guidance counselor for elementary school children but the vote was not unanimous. Vice Chairman Kimberly Muise voted against eliminating that position, saying that the district needs to consider the “whole child” and do whatever is possible to protect the health and well being of students.Board members also disagreed on eliminating a curriculum specialist with an annual salary of $78,900.

Murotake argued that with the Common Core standards-based assessment tests starting in the spring of 2015, eliminating a specialist to help tailor curriculum to prepare students would be a mistake.“The reason the Common Core standards are better is because the rigor is raised and new things are added,” said Murotake, who has repeatedly called for a delay in starting those tests. “It is a fantasy to believe you can eliminate that position. What we need is not to skinny down curriculum specialists but to add more.”Fellow board member Steven Haas agreed.

“I think we need all hands on deck, and I don’t believe we can afford to remove a curriculum specialist,” said Haas. The majority of the board, however, voted to approve that cut.At one point, Sandra Ziehm suggested sending the budget as is to the board of aldermen and letting them make the cuts, but fellow board members said the aldermen would just reduce the bottom line and send it back to the board of education to make the tough choices.The board is scheduled to meet again on April 2, at 6:30 p.m. at Nashua High School North to continue looking for ways to reduce the budget without forcing significant sacrifices on students or teachers.