Proposed Souhegan Coop School District budget sails through to March 11 elections

AMHERST – About 30 voters gave their near-unanimous blessing to both articles on the brief Souhegan Cooperative School District fiscal 2015 warrant at Deliberative Session on Saturday,
Feb. 1.

Only one resident commented during the roughly 90-minute session at Souhegan High School.

The result is the proposed $18 million operating budget, along with a request for $65,000 to be added to the School Maintenance Fund, will go on to the school district ballot unchanged. Voters will decide the proposals’ fate at the polls on March 11.

The school district governs Souhegan High School, which is attended by students living in Amherst and Mont Vernon. Its school board is made up of seven members, five from Amherst and two from Mont Vernon.

Amherst residents will vote at Souhegan High School from 6 a.m.-8 p.m., while Mont Vernon voters will go to Village School from 7 a.m.-7 p.m.

Voters that day will also fill the three School Board seats – two for Amherst representatives and one for a Mont Vernon representative – that are up for re-election this year.

The Amherst seats are held by Fran Harrow and board Chairwoman Mary Lou Mullens, while Pim Gronstra’s Mont Vernon seat is up for election. All are three-year terms.

The brief discussion over the budget involved the per-student ratio, which a resident calculated at $21,000 by dividing the budget’s bottom line by 839 – the number of Souhegan High School students the district anticipates will be enrolled in the coming fiscal year.

School Board member Steve Coughlan said the figure might seem comparatively high, but noted, “We built this budget from the bottom up, not from the top down.”

District Business Administrator Elizabeth Shankel said the fact the operating budget includes overall cost items that don’t directly relate to educational programs makes determining an accurate cost per student much more complicated.

The Souhegan Advisory Finance Committee voted 5-2 to recommend the budget be approved. Co-Chairman Tom Silvia said one dissenter cited the high costs of special education, while the other said the budget numbers didn’t decline in proportion to the school’s recent drop in enrollment.

Coughlan noted in response that the district has reduced its combined faculty and staff positions by about 13 over the last two years. The cuts were made with no negative impact on educational programs, he added.

Passage of the budget, which represents an increase of roughly $140,800, or 0.8 percent, over the current budget, would add 32 cents per $1,000 valuation to property taxes for Amherst residents and 69 cents per $1,000 valuation for Mont Vernon residents.

It equates to a $105 annual tax increase for an Amherst home valued at $330,000, while the owner of a Mont Vernon home assessed at $300,000 would pay $207 more per year.

If the budget is voted down, the district would adopt a $17.9 million default budget, which is about $194,000 less than the proposed budget.

The other article, proposing to add $65,000 to the School Maintenance Fund, sailed with no comments or “no” votes.

The Financial Advisory Committee was also unanimous in recommending its passage.

School Board member Howard Brown said adding to the fund is important because the district will soon need to replace the Souhegan High track, which he said is falling into disrepair.

The estimated replacement cost is $225,000, he said.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashua