Deerfield agrees to support Frontier Regional school budget
DEERFIELD — The Frontier Regional School Committee jumped its biggest hurdle in passing its operating budget on Monday — the fiscally conservative town of Deerfield.
About 113 Deerfield townspeople on Monday voted to increase the town budget by $29,775 to support the School Committee’s request.
With Sunderland’s support last week, the School Committee only needs one more town to get its $9,465,693 budget for next year.
The Whately Select Board and Finance Committee have recommended their full share of the budget. Conway, however, asked for a 2.5 percent overall budget increase.
At the brief annual town meeting, voters approved the $12,034,076 budget. To pay for various budget increases and capital projects, the town agreed to use $589,076 in surplus, or free cash.
Over the course of the budget process, the Frontier budget request has been vigorously debated as the four towns in the district pushed for decreases and school leaders insisted the budget covered necessary expenses. Deerfield Finance Committee members and selectmen, the most vocal dissenters, called for a 3 percent overall increase to the budget rather than the proposed 4.92 percent increase.
Deerfield’s assessment is $3,079,734. Sunderland’s is $1,628,289, Whately’s is $864,793 and Conway’s is $1,008,832.
Mary Ramon, Deerfield representative to the Frontier School Committee, attributed the budget increase to the declining residential student population — down 101 students since 2008. To make up for decreasing enrollment and increasing costs, the School Committee cut five middle school teaching positions last year. This year, the School Committee took $40,000 from free cash to reduce town assessments. Last week, a $79,395-per-year teacher gave notice of her retirement — a position the school will not fill. If the town did not pay its full share, the school district would have to cut two more teaching positions.
Budget increases are also due to special education costs. Until this year, Ramon said, the special education costs were spread between four elementary school budgets. This year, the costs have come into one Frontier budget.
The elementary school budget also increased by $101,517 because it continues to get special education placements in kindergarten while older students move to the regional school, said Business Manager Patricia Cavanaugh.
The total out-of-district placement cost for special education students is $891,070 for 13 students, said School Committee member Robert Decker.
Deerfield Finance Committee Chairman Albert Olmstead Jr. said funding the school budget would require a Proposition 2½ override.
“The town Finance Committee did not find this an easy decision to make,” Olmstead said. “We have a serious problem with finances in town.”
“I’ll encourage the town to appropriate money but if we need to do an override, we do an override. We need to have the service for these kids,” Decker said to applause.
The School Committee did not get all of its requests, however. The town approved $14,803 in capital requests for the school, coming $68,118 short of the school’s request.
In total, the School Committee requested $133,250 for improvement projects. Requests include $67,500 in safety and security improvements, $5,750 in electrical improvements, $30,000 for a maintenance truck and $30,000 for a student transport van.
The town’s portion covers new knobs for classroom doors, new locks for exterior doors and electrical power to the garage.
The piecemeal funding has raised questions on what the School Committee will do if different towns fund different projects.
While town attorneys in Sunderland and Deerfield advised that the towns do not have to fund the capital requests like the operating budget, the school attorney told Superintendent Regina Nash the opposite.
“We need three of four towns to vote on the capital improvement articles like the budget,” Nash said.
Last week, Sunderland added a safeguard to its motion.
Sunderland supported $17,759,25 for its share of the $67,500 for school building safety and security updates. But it would only pay up if other towns fund their portions of the project.
Other budget items garnered little debate.
Townspeople readily approved the $4,162,209 Deerfield Elementary School budget.
Other town departments had small budget bumps. The police budget, including salaries and expenses, amounted to $746,080. The highway budget is $311,530. The Tilton Library received $150,605.
The town also approved nine other department capital requests. The whole capital budget amounted to $194,813. It includes a $39,660 police vehicle, $24,500 in computers and software for the police department, $2,500 for similar technology in the town offices, $10,000 for town office accessibility, $27,000 for matching grants for the elementary school generator and $9,200 for elementary school door hardware and $20,000 for an ambulance replacement.
For $47,750 in community preservation money, the Historical Commission will be able to pay for the restoration and documentation of the history of South Deerfield. One project would include new fences for the Sugarloaf Street Cemetery to mirror the original design, and the second project would continue work started last year to preserve the village’s history.
Routine business was approved quickly. This includes $49,574 for Deerfield’s share of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, $51,890 for tuition and transportation expenses for two students to attend Smith Vocational Agricultural High School, $25,000 for the unfunded liability sick leave and vacation account and $501,471 for the operation and maintenance of the Wastewater Treatment Plants and for sewer line maintenance.