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Update: Brennan proposes $160 million Manchester school budget

New Hampshire Union Leader

January 14. 2013 8:56PM

MANCHESTER — Superintendent Thomas Brennan has proposed a “school approval” budget of $160 million for the next school year and a “tax cap” budget of nearly $156 million.

Brennan told the Board of School Committee Monday that the larger budget was crafted with the intention of meeting state education standards. “We will meet all administrative rules, as I have reviewed them, to meet state standards,” Brennan said of the fiscal 2014 budget, which totals $160,356,768.

“This is what I think we need so as not to repeat what happened this year, not just at the high schools, but in (grades) K through 12,” he said.

The $160 million budget calls for hiring 41 new teachers: 19 in the high schools, 15 in the middle schools, and seven in the elementary schools.

The “tax cap” budget is based on a projected 2.3 percent average increase in the Consumer Price Index. Under the voter-approved tax cap, the budget can increase by no more than the three-year average rise in the CPI.

The tax cap budget presented by Brennan, which totals $155,922,591, takes the 2013 appropriation from the aldermen of $152 million and adds $3.5 million.

The tax cap budget does not add any new teaching positions, but it does not entail any layoffs.

The gap between the two budgets is far narrower than the budgets presented at this time last year, when Brennan proposed a tax cap budget of $152 million and a progressive budget of $164 million.

Mayor Ted Gatsas reacted with skepticism about certain aspects of the budget proposals Monday, as did board member Christopher Stewart.

He suggested the $156 million budget wasn’t a “real tax cap budget” since it included $1 million in one-time “impact fees” and $1 million in expendable trust money, a move Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis acknowledged was risky.

Brennan responded that the appropriations were made because he wanted to avoid additional layoffs.

“We’re not an employment agency,” Stewart said. “When we’re sitting here a year-and-a-half from now, are we going to see an increase in graduation rates, in test scores? Where are we going to see improvement in achievement that merits going back to the taxpayers and asking for more money?”

Brennan responded: “I think you would see some improvement, but I won’t sit here and tell you there’s direct correlation with hiring teachers.”

Brennan added that he wasn’t recommending the tax cap budget, but the larger “school approval” budget.

DeFrancis projected that the staffing levels could be preserved or increased, as proposed in the larger budget, despite an anticipated $2.6 million in additional retirement and health insurance costs. The projection does not include cost-of-living increases or raises, which will be the subject of negotiations with the teachers union — set to get under way in the coming weeks.

The larger staffing budget for next year is based partly on surpluses projected for this year due to unfilled vacancies. Gatsas questioned why, if there are surplus funds, this money would not be used to bring down class sizes, something demanded by the towns of Hooksett and Candia as they’ve taken steps to pull their high school students from the district.

“We’ve been trying to find ways to alleviate the size of the 31 classes,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we use that money to reduce the class sizes, if the dollars were there?”

DeFrancis responded that it was only with new financial data that she was making the projection of a surplus in the staffing budget.

Gatsas continued to press Brennan about the numbers, prompting the superintendent to say: “Can we just relax?”

Gatsas replied, “I’m fine. You just need to know your numbers.”

The school board directed Brennan to present two budgets Monday — one to comply with the tax cap and the other to “fully fund” the district in line with state standards.

During the public comment prior to the start of the meeting, several parents urged the school board to support a budget that went beyond the tax cap, which some labeled a “regressive budget.”

“The results of (last year’s budget) are clear, including a rapid decline in the perception of the quality of education in Manchester,” said Lisa Drake, one of several parents affiliated with the advocacy group Citizens for Manchester Schools. “I’ve seen investments elsewhere in city facilities, but in education we see resources diminishing. If we don’t make the necessary investment, you don’t get the results you want.”

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