Full Support; Facilities repairs, expanded kindergarten OK’d

MILFORD – Voters at the School Deliberative Session on Saturday, Feb. 11, easily pushed back an attempt to reduce a $3 million bond for school building repairs and improvements.

Last March, a similar bond lost at the polls, failing by 20 votes to get the required 60 percent majority. But this year, the nine-member Advisory Budget Committee supports it unanimously.

“I opposed it last year,” said committee Chairman Rick Wood, who said all of the items on this year’s list need to be done.

The bond would pay for work at the high school and middle school and a partial roof replacement at Heron Pond Elementary. The highest priority item is $525,000 for new heat piping at the high school.

“Basically, the building is wearing out,” School Board Chairman Paul Dargie said of the high school, which was built in 1964.

Budget Committee member Bob Thompson said students sometimes have to wear winter coats in cold classrooms, and that the high school’s 50-year-old bleachers are “scary.”

“Our buildings are in dire need of repair,” he said. “We need $18 million of repairs. … Just walk around this building” and look at the condition.

The amendment to cut the building bond down to $2 million failed by an overwhelming show of cards.

Three out of five items on the high school building’s priorities list had been named by the accrediation body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

After state Rep. Barbara Biggie questioned NEASC’s authority, Principal Brad Craven explained 95 percent of all schools put themselves through this voluntary evaluation process every 10 years, and that colleges and universities pay attention to it when looking at applicants.

Resident Steve Takacs wanted to know why part of the roof on Heron Pond Elementary – “an almost new building,” he said – needs a $170,000 replacement. Dargie said the building is actually 17 years old, and that the roof warranty was for 10 years. The School District’s facilities director, William Cooper, said the replacement should last 20-25 years.

Voters also passed an amendment to revise the wording of the kindergarten article – $306,000 for a pilot program to expand the program to full day. The new language will say the program will have no cost to taxpayers.

Several people spoke in favor of the expanded program. There was a lot of talk about the curriculum, which was designed so that those going full day will have expanded enrichment but not expanded academics, for the sake of equity, school officials said.

Jacques Memorial School Principal Nancy Maguire said “tons of math and reading” will be incorporated into dramatic play that will be part of the expanded program.

The Budget Committee had voted 7-1-1 in favor of it. George Hoyt, a high school student who is a Budget Committee member, called full-day kindergarten “just basically day care.”

School officials referred to research studies on the academic and social benefits of expanded kindergarten programs that can be found on the Milford School District website.

Answering an emailed question after the meeting about Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposal to fund kindergarten expansion, Dargie said if there is state money for full-day kindergarten, the next School Board could decide to reduce the tuition, now set at $510 a month.

The district’s $40.6 million operating budget is a $1.2 million increase, with much of that coming from salaries, benefits and out-of-district tuition for special needs students.

Wood called it a “reasonable budget … the best we can do today.”

State Rep. Joelle Martin said part of the problem is that school districts are losing out on revenue because the state has cut back severely on the amount of retirement costs it covers.

“People need to talk” to their representatives about why none of the state’s substantial surplus is going back to the towns, Thompson said.

State Sen. Gary Daniels, a Milford selectman, proposed an amendment to cut about $635,000 from the budget, saying school costs are climbing much faster than wages and Social Security benefits. The amendment failed.

Voters also rejected an amendment to zero-out a $200,000 contingency fund to come from the undesignated year-end fund balance, which essentially is a surplus. Daniels said that when he was on the School Board, it always chose to give the surplus back to taxpayers. Takacs called it a “slush fund.”

But Wood, of the Budget Committee, said the warrant article wouldn’t give the board more authority to spend the money, only to expand the time period to spend it and allow the district to “chip away at” the long list of building maintenance items that aren’t covered by the capital improvements bond.

There are cost items for two collective bargaining agreements on the warrant. One is for custodians, with a first-year cost of $6,705, and the other is for support staff. Because of changes in health insurance and buyouts, the costs actually go down by more than $2,000 next year; but in 2018-19, the contract would add $61,000 to the budget.

If the operating budget and all warrant articles pass, the school tax rate will go up by $1.02 per thousand dollars of assessed value, a 4.96 percent increase.

A few women in the audience spoke up to say they can’t afford their property taxes, and one said Daniels had come to her house to encourage her to come to the meeting, the first she had ever attended.

“What do you tell people in their 60s and 70s?” she said.

There were about 80 people at the meeting, which lasted nearly four hours. It had been scheduled for the evening of Feb. 9 and postponed because of snow.

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