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December 30. 2012 9:07PM

Legislature wants quick fix on Newfound school budget

CONCORD - Legislative leaders hope to make quick work of a bill to fix a budget problem for the Newfound Area School District when the House and Senate meet Wednesday.

The bill would undo the unintended consequences of Senate Bill 2. That bill allows multi-town school districts to impose spending or tax caps.

But some lawmakers are balking, saying the bill would override the will of the voters.

House Minority Leader Gene Chandler (R-Carroll) said the bill would not override the will of voters. They will still have their say at the school district's next annual meeting, he said.

"I would ask those members with concerns 'If your community has a problem, wouldn't you like the Legislature to act if we had a chance to help?' And, hopefully, we will," Chandler said. "This is a positive thing for the Legislature to do and shows we can be helpful ."

The bill has the backing of the House and Senate leadership and Gov. John Lynch, who could sign it on his last full day in office, something the Newfound area budget committee chairman and former representative Fran Wendelboe called historic.

"I doubt there has been a bill passed in the House and the Senate and signed by governor all on his last day in office," she said.

The Newfound district, the first and only district to utilize the new law to date, passed a tax cap in March 2011. The cap limited next-year spending to a 2-percent increase over what was raised in taxes the previous year.

Several months after the cap was passed, the school district announced it had a $700,000 surplus. When the Department of Revenue Administration determined tax rates for the communities for 2012, it followed the law and applied the $700,000 to the amount to be raised to the current year's budget, reducing that figure from $11.6 million, which was approved by voters last year, to $10.9 million.

The problem arose when the district began to set the upcoming school year's budget and found out the base is $10.9 million and not the $11.6 million district voters approved. The result is the school board and budget committee cannot legally approve a budget 2 percent greater than $10.9 million, or about $11.1 million.

Wendelboe said the budget committee could not recommend a budget that cuts $700,000 off current spending.

"None of us think that is prudent at this point," she said.

If the school district had not cut $2.5 million from the budget last year, it might be a different story, she said. She noted 16 positions were cut, and health benefits were severely reduced for non-union staff.

We made a lot of hard choices, Wendelboe said. The district needs a year to see how the current budget is working before it cuts another $700,000.

She said the district is asking for a one-time fix and should not be forced to do more than it has already done. Any legislator not willing to do that is not acting in the best interest of our school district, Wendelboe said.

"As far as I know, all the legislators in the district are on board. There was some confusion at first, but they are fine now," Wendelboe said.

The bill is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Suzanne Smith of Hebron and Republican Sen. Jeannie Forrester of Meredith.

A special House committee established to review the bill voted unanimously to recommend it be approved.

grayno@unionleader.com

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