Souhegan School Board highlights recent Deliberative Session

To the Editor:

The Souhegan School Board would like to thank all of the parents, students, staff, SAU School Board members, and community for coming to our Deliberative Session on Feb. 5. We are thankful for the support, thoughtful comments, and questions raised. It was wonderful to hear from students and parents alike who expressed appreciation for the education, preparation and experience that Souhegan brings. We thank the many staff members for attending; in particular, we appreciate the comments from the members of the high school’s negotiating body who spoke about their feelings of connection to our community, even if they don’t live here, which led to the acceptance of a proposed contract highlighted by a 0% cost of living increase for the entire staff over the next two years.

For those unable to attend, we would like to highlight some key elements of our budget presentation. Enrollment and cost per pupil have been the biggest part of this years budget discussions, as high schools across the state face decreasing enrollments and increasing cost per pupil. Some facts regarding these two budget elements:

– The board is very aware that Souhegan’s cost per pupil is high. We have taken steps to reduce our cost per pupil, and will continue to address this over time, without sacrificing the quality of education our students receive. Some of these steps include an analysis of Souhegan’s facilities usage, continuing a review of the program of studies, reallocation of staff, co-curricular review, and the implementation of the SAU wide strategic plan.

– To date, we have reduced our cost per pupil by $305 by eliminating 13.7 positions, closing one of our cafeterias, changing the budget review process, contract negotiations spanning a 4-year period that feature minimal to no cost of living increases, reduced prescription benefits, higher health deductibles, and incentivizing lower cost health plans.

– Souhegan’s decrease in enrollment and corresponding increase in cost per pupil is not an anomaly, but is right in line with the enrollment and cost per pupil state averages (2008-2014).

– In fact, Souhegan is one of the few schools that has recently been successful in reducing cost per pupil, something other districts are finding difficult to achieve.

– Souhegan’s enrollment has actually increased by 4 percent over the last 2 years. During that time, the budget decreased by 2.85 percent the first year, and increased by only 1.22 percent the second year. Souhegan is not slated to see another major drop in enrollment until FY18.

– Cost per pupil values alone are not an adequate way to compare the cost of education, nor it’s impact on taxes from district to district. Some elements afecting a tax rate which are not reflected in a cost per pupil include capital and bond debt that a district may incur by building a new school or athletic facilities, for example.

– A reduction of 24 students (or 2.86 percent of enrollment) over four grade levels does not allow for the elimination of positions, or the ability to buy 24 fewer books or other supplies. 2.86 percent fewer students does not mean we receive a 2.86 percent reduction in transportation contracts or other contractual obligations, or the reduction of fixed costs such as gas or electric.

Other key points:

– Souhegan’s current operating budget, as well as the FY16 proposed budget are lower than our FY11 budget by 1 percent and .7 percent respectively

– The proposed FY16 budget has an increase of 0.21 percent ($37,845), mainly due to a 27 percent ($46,639) increase in our transportation contract, and a 10 percent ($97,325) increase in retirement costs as the state continues to shift this burden to the local level.

As board members, we are charged with the delicate balance of ensuring our students get the quality education they deserve and that our community expects, at a cost that is affordable and acceptable to all of our stakeholders. That is not an easy job. A lot of research, thought, analysis and angst occurs before presenting a final budget.

However, as taxpayers ourselves, we understand that no matter how responsible a budget is, people want to understand the value they are getting for their money. After all, the quality and value of our schools is a major factor in keeping property values up and attracting new residents to our towns. We have a lot to share in our next letter with regards to value.

Souhegan Cooperative School Board

Mary Lou Mullens, Chair

Fran Harrow, Vice Chair

Howard Brown, Secretary

Steve Coughlan

Pim Grondstra

Fran Harrow

Chris Janson

Peter Maresco