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January 20. 2013 9:53PM

Keene school board boosts budget

KEENE - An outcry from the community over proposed staff cuts caused the Keene Board of Education to increase its proposed budget last Tuesday night.

The board presented a $62,333,572 budget Tuesday that included approximately 10 staff cuts to curb increases.

Voters will have a chance to discuss the now-$62,386,947 budget and amend it themselves if they choose at the deliberative session planned for Saturday, Feb. 9.

The new proposed budget is only a 0.85-percent increase from last year, but represents an estimated 5.8-percent impact on property taxes, said Ann Szot, vice chairwoman of the board.

Szot said the proposed staff cuts were an attempt by the school board to prevent several budget hikes out of the board's hands totaling $1.4 million: a $350,000 increase in health insurance costs, a $725,000 increase in salaries as part of the current collective bargaining contract, and a $740,000 increase in the district's payment to the state Retirement System.

Additionally the district is losing about $250,500 in state adequacy aid.

"Basically, the state has walked away from providing the students of New Hampshire an adequate education," Szot said.

Tuesday night, the board decided to add several proposed staff positions back into the budget after listening to about three hours of public input, Szot said.

The board listened to voters who said they wanted the new Gifted and Talented Program, costing $85,000 for one full-time position with benefits and program supplies, cut in order to save physical education, art and music teacher jobs at the three smaller elementary schools.

The school board said the "specials" teachers from the two larger elementary schools could teach at the smaller schools, but voters said those teachers fill various roles in their schools and it would take away from the programs at the schools while the Gifted and Talented Program would be for a small percentage of students.

"At Tuesday's meeting, there was huge outcry, so they cut the Gifted and Talented coordinator and they said the money that was saved would restore the elementary school positions," Szot said.

The board also restored a full-time school nurse position at Keene High School. Not all of the public's wishes were granted, though, Szot said.

"They don't want us to cut any staff or services, but in the same breath they are saying, 'But don't increase our taxes, 'cause we can't pay any more.'"

Many of the part- and full-time positions remain on the chopping block, including several positions at the high school: athletic director, math, science, school counselor, social studies, special education, English, health and world language teachers.

"Even though we're cutting, we're trying our best to do it through retirement and attrition," Szot said.

Two part-time positions, a French and a Spanish teacher, that make up the fifth-grade language program remain cut. The $37,000 program is small, not even equaling a full-time position, Szot said, but the board feels it has too little impact. Perhaps an after-school program could replace it, she said.

"Just because we cut world language doesn't mean we don't think it's important," Szot said. "We can't have everything we want. We just can't. We can't afford it. Just like in your own home budget."

Three new positions at the high school, though, are in the proposed budget: two reading teachers and a substance abuse counselor.

The board is trying to balance doing its best for students while not causing property taxes to go up, Szot said.

If voted down, the default budget would be over $1 million higher at $63,490,613.

"If our budget fails, peoples' taxes will go up, which is odd," Szot said. "But we're trying to keep our budget down. It is a conundrum."

mpierce@newstote.com

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