WEST NEWBURY — Eleven teaching positions — a majority at the elementary level — could be cut from the Pentucket Regional School District next year if tax hikes to support the budget are not funded in Groveland and Merrimac this spring.
The district's proposed $34.5 million spending plan represents a 2.9 percent increase — or $1.58 million more — in operating expenses. However, even if approved by voters at town meetings on April 30 and with override votes at the polls in Groveland and Merrimac on May 7, next year's budget already calls for the loss of 4.5 teachers. A failed tax override could mean six additional teaching cuts.
West Newbury will not face an override request for the schools and instead will fund its school assessment within the line-item budget. The school budget must pass in two of the three district towns.
In Merrimac, a $195,000 override means about $93 more in annual property taxes on the average house assessed at $313,000. A $192,662 override in Groveland is $81 more on the average $352,180 home.
But, when reached on Wednesday, Groveland's Finance Director Greg Labrecque noted that the assessment for Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School has increased $103,000 in that town. Pentucket's override coupled with the new debt exclusion for the Bagnall Elementary School addition and the 2 1/2 annual increases allowable under state law means a tax bill of $342.43, he said.
A 1.9 percent hike, or $625,000 of the projected budget increase, represents debt for elementary school renovation projects ongoing throughout the district for which funding has already been approved by voters.
A large factor in the increase is the loss of $400,000 in Education Jobs funds, a federal stimulus grant program that ended this year.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the Pentucket School Committee agreed that in the event of a shortfall, the following cuts would be made to cover the $500,000 deficit:
Six elementary classroom teachers: $300,000
One middle school guidance counselor: $50,000
High school supplies and equipment: $40,000
Middle and elementary supplies and equipment: $60,000
Up to 10 more school choice or International students in grades 7 to 12 would bring in an additional $50,000. Final decisions on a revised budget would be made after two new representatives are elected to the committee in May.
The potential for class sizes of 28 at the lower elementary school level have some committee members quite concerned. Interim business manager David Jack said the teaching cuts would be a serious blow to a district that has already reduced its staff by 65.5 — or 15 percent — in the past six years. Enrollment district-wide is down 6 percent during that time.
"I think it is a very real budget that supports the goals we have in this district," said Jack, but added that if the overrides don't pass, class sizes will go up.
This potential sparked an emotional debate, as uncertainty over the budget spilled over into a discussion on intra-district transfers. The committee was asked to consider allowing a preschooler from Groveland to join her older sister at Page Elementary School in West Newbury next year. When the older sibling was placed at Page as part of a district-wide special education program, her parents believed their younger children would be allowed to attend there as well. The younger girl has been attending Children's Castle, the preschool housed in a portion of Page School for two years. "We were told this was a non-issue," said the mother, who addressed the school board but did not state her name.
According to district policy, "Siblings may be offered intra-district choice at the sole discretion of the superintendent" and states that class size maybe a consideration in his decision. Livingston said current numbers indicate the district "might be able to accommodate" the request, but he preferred to wait until after the override votes before making a final determination.
Page Principal Jack O'Mara called the Groveland residents "a lovely family," but he also asked to defer the decision until after the kindergarten screening process is completed and he has a better sense of how affected his school is by any teacher cuts. Several members supported the administration's request.
But Chairwoman Chris Reading, who acknowledged she is a friend of the family making the request, pointed out that the district saves money by having these district-wide programs, but it means some children are not always placed in their own town's elementary school, which is hard on families. And her colleague from West Newbury, Chris Wile, said he was "befuddled" as to why just one parent couldn't be accommodated.
In the end, the mother's heartfelt request to keep her children in school together ultimately swayed a majority of the board.
At the end of the budget talks, the board agreed to a request by West Newbury resident Holly Colvin to post on the district's website (www.prsd.org) an "easy-to-read" summary of the budget and potential cuts.
"Four out of five people in this district have no idea what is going on," Colvin said.