Amherst-Mont Vernon high school costs are an issue

AMHERST – The high school’s cost per pupil might be high, but the towns are getting a lot for their money, said several school supporters at the deliberative session for the Souhegan Cooperative School District.

And despite a strong attempt to cut the operating budget, Amherst and Mont Vernon voters at the Feb. 5 meeting put the entire $18 million budget article on the warrant for the March 10 election.

School board members said the spending would have gone down if it were not for a hike in transportation costs and a requirement to pay more into the New Hampshire retirement system.

“Maintaining an aging facility … is a major budget driver,” said school board Chairwoman Mary Lou Mullens, and so are salary and benefit costs, because most of the school’s teachers are at the top of the salary scale.

If the amendment had passed it would have brought the budget down to the default budget level and would have reduced the tax burden for Amherst homeowners by about $30.

That savings would come at a cost, said board members, because textbooks for a new curriculum would have to be cut, along with money for training, music and shop equipment and a new irrigation system for new fields.

The school finance committee supports the budget 5-2. David Chen, committee co-chairman, gave the minority report, saying the budget doesn’t reflect the school’s declining enrollment.

The other finance committee member who voted no, Kathie Nunley, said she did so, for the third time in three years, because of what she called an “antiquated, unethical and expensive” special education program.

Speaking for the finance committee’s majority, Dwayne Purvis said the school board and finance committee “bent over backwards” to make the budget as transparent as possible and he praised the school’s achievements.

“It is an expensive school, and we recognize that it is an investment, he said.

The amendment came from Bob Brewster and he was supported by Margaret McCabe. Brewster said he is confident the budget cut would not affect services.

McCabe said the district’s $19,000 per pupil cost is higher than its neighbors and teachers’ salary costs are too high.

Others said high quality services are expensive and residents should be proud of the high school’s highly competent and well-paid teachers.

Elizabeth Purvis, a student, said Souhegan does much better than Hollis on state rankings.

“I want to go to Harvard Law School,” she said, “and if I were in Hollis I might not.”

Shannon Chandley and school board member Steve Coughlan said it would not be fair for the 100 or so voters at the meeting to take away the right of a much larger number of voters to decide the budget March 10.

The amendment to cut the budget to the default amount of $17.9 million was defeated by an overwhelming show of cards.

If passed, the budget’s tax rate impact for Amherst would increase by 7 cents per thousand of assessed value, and for Mont Vernon 1 cent.

After a discussion of the various indicators of school quality, Superintendent of Schools Peter Warburton agreed that he and other school officials don’t understand the mediocre NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) test scores, but they could be because the juniors who take them “could care less” about the test.

The 3-hour deliberative meeting also voted on a two-year agreement with professional and support staff that will cost the district $29,000 in 2015-2016 for salaries and benefits and a $220,000 article to replace the running track, with half that amount coming from surplus funds.

All of the warrant articles will be on the March 10 ballot. Voting will take place from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the high school.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.