Voters block budget cut – Souhegan meeting draws large crowd

AMHERST – Hundreds of voters beat back an at­tempt to cut the Souhegan High School budget last week.

At the largest school meeting in decades, more than 450 people filled the school theater and then spilled into two other rooms where the proceed­ings were televised.

The excited crowd eas­ily defeated an amend­ment to reduce the school’s $17.58 million budget, and booed and ap­plauded speakers during the three-hour Delibera­tive Session.

Sponsors of the amend­ment said Souhegan’s cost per pupil is unnecessarily high.

"You’re not getting course offerings because of these costs," said Frank Brown, of Middle Street, who gave a slide show comparing Souhegan’s per-pupil costs with those of Bedford and Hollis Brookline high schools.

David Chen, the only Souhegan School Board member to vote against the budget, was booed when he said more foreign language offerings should be cut because the Inter­net is making English the dominant world language. He also said some math courses could be replaced by computer program­ming and pre-engineering courses.

The current default budget does not affect academic quality, Chen said, and another default budget should not.

On the other side, Dwayne Purvis, of the Ad­visory Finance Commit­tee, was applauded when he said the budget – which is 3.95 percent less than this year’s budget – has the committee’s unani­mous support because it maintains quality and keeps the facility in good order.

A group that calls itself Working for Great Schools has been lobbying for a lower cost per pupil, say­ing teachers’ salaries and benefits keep it too high.

Hollis Brookline High School’s budget is $4 mil­lion less than Souhegan’s, Brown said, and that school and Bedford High "are excellent schools with a greater variety of course offerings."

School Board Chair­woman Mary Lou Mullins said the state Depart­ment of Education warns against comparing dis­tricts that have different grade levels. The Bedford and Hollis Brookline dis­tricts both encompass elementary and middle schools. "Hollis Brookline is an anomaly, an outlier," she said, "and it’s the focus of our budget committee work" to learn why. There was a lot of talk about which schools were suitable to compare with Souhegan. Tom Silvia, cochairman of the Advisory Finance Committee said Milford and Merrimack should be part of the equation.

"The only reason people live here" is the schools, he said. "It makes absolutely no sense to cut the budget." John Glover, of Cricket Hill Drive, said he’d be "willing pay $33 more a year to have back Spanish 5 and French 5, two courses that the board cut from the budget." It was the biggest attendance at a school meeting since the district switched from the town meeting to the Senate Bill 2 form of voting in the 1990s, said district moderator Addie Hutchison.

The $15.8 million budget proposed by the school board would reduce Amherst residents’ total school tax rate by 10 cents and Mont Vernon’s by 22 cents. If the budget is defeated and a default budget results, the rates would go down even further. Seven voters requested a secret ballot, but the request was withdrawn after Peggy Silva said it would take the meeting well past 11 p.m.

Also on the Souhegan district’s warrant is an article asking to establish a recreation revolving fund and another one to add $65,000 from a budget surplus to the school maintenance fund. The budget vote will be Tuesday, March 8.

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