Merrimack school budget committee's fate in voters' handsBy KIMBERLY HOUGHTON
Union Leader Correspondent
April 03. 2014 10:41PM
MERRIMACK — Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to eliminate the school district’s budget committee, a proposal that has become quite controversial in recent weeks.
Residents will be presented with a petition warrant article seeking to rescind the 12-member school district budget committee and increase the number of school board members from five to seven.
The proposal received mixed reviews at last month’s school district deliberative session. Since then, supporters and opponents have been trying to make their voices heard, writing letters to the editor and posting their open letters on various social media sites.
Christopher Ortega, chairman of the Merrimack School Board, is strongly opposed to eliminating the school district’s budget committee.
“Removing the budget committee now, simply because we are in a relatively quiet time, is not prudent,” said Ortega.
The committee, said Ortega, is an appropriations board that is tasked once a year with forming a reasonable budget that hovers around $65 million. The school board, he explained, has ultimate responsibility for the management of the district and to live within the budget created by the committee.
Each board is relevant, and each board plays its own vital part in the budget system as intended, according to Ortega.
“Additionally, each body’s processes have been streamlined to improve efficiency and expedite the process,” he said, noting the school board unanimously voted to not recommend the warrant article.
Gary Krupp, vice-chairman of the budget committee, is supportive of the warrant article and recently issued a letter in response to Ortega’s remarks.
Krupp describes the budget committee as a waste of time and effort for school administrators and citizens. Because of contractual salaries, benefits and special education costs in the district’s budget, Krupp maintains that the committee can only adjust less than 20 percent of the overall school budget. Furthermore, when the committee does make a change to the budget, it only affects the bottomline, stressed Krupp. “I would submit that the school budget process is broken, and that this article, if passed, will fix it,” he said. The new, streamlined process mentioned by Ortega may give the school board extra time to review the proposed spending plan, but the committee members now feel rushed, according to Krupp. Tim Tenhave, former town councilor, has said that he supports dissolving the budget committee and allowing a larger school board to review and analyze the district budget."I believe it moves the district forward," said Tenhave, who noted the proposal will allow the school board to be more accountable for the budget.
Jody Vaillancourt, former school board member, agreed, saying earlier that the budget committee is no longer necessary. If the committee is eliminated, it would enable the school board and public extra time to examine and debate the proposed budget, she said.
At the school district deliberative session, at least two members of the budget committee spoke out against abolishing the panel.
"I am baffled by this warrant article," said Carol Lang, member of the committee, adding there are benefits to having a budget committee that are being overlooked.
The school board is busy dealing with policy issues and other vital matters, said Lang, explaining the budget committee provides an independent set of eyes watching school district expenses. If the panel is eliminated, she argued there would be less diversity of opinions offered on the budget.
Ortega is also concerned about adding two more members to the school board.
“In the years since the town went from a five-person board of selectmen to a seven-person town council, there have been multiple elections where councilor seats have gone uncontested, while no school board seat has,” said Ortega. “What choice or diversity of thought were the voters given at the polls with a single candidate?”
Krupp contends that the school district budget is significantly larger than the town budget, adding it makes sense to include more representation on the school board.
Election day is Tuesday. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at James Mastricola Upper Elementary School.