Green Challenges Numbers at Timberlane Budget Hearing

SANDOWN – Though she was ready to participate by phone, the Timberlane Regional School District Budget Committee voted not to allow Sandown representative Cathy Gorman to take part in the meeting immediately following its public budget hearing Thursday, Jan. 16.

Sandown’s other representative, Donna Green, made the motion to allow Gorman to participate, but received little support.

After the motion failed in an overwhelming majority, the budget put up by the district faced little objection other than from Green. In a meeting directly following the hearing the story was the same, as every warrant article put up by the district was unanimously recommended by the committee with the exception of Green’s dissent. One article also saw committee member Jason Grosky vote against recommending.

It’s been a tough year for Sandown’s committee members. Buttressed by distaste for a $6 per thousand increase to their tax bills, many in the community are pointing to the school district as the source of their woes, and Green has been vocal about what she sees as unrestrained spending at the district, routinely decrying it at her blog at timberlaneandsandown.wordpress.com. Green is adamant that she’s not against education but said the culture at the district needs to change and be more creative about ways to serve student needs while staying in tune with taxpayers.

And until recently, she and Gorman have not been getting the information they’ve been seeking from the district to, they say, make an adequate review of the numbers.

Last week, a number of the outstanding requests came in, after Green threatened to bring a complaint to the state Attorney General.

During the hearing Timberlane superintendent Earl Metzler said two things were the focus of the budget process, to do what’s best by the students and to present a budget that’s fair to taxpayers.

“Put yourselves in my shoes for a minute. I have to do this with a committee,” Metzler said.

Describing the budget process, Metzler said the administration initially presented a budget that had everything they wanted in it, and then reduced that number over and over again with input from the budget committee and school board representatives.

Metzler said that when the budget reached a certain point, the budget committee said there should be no more cuts.

“They said, ‘Whoa. Put those positions back in. This is where we stop,’” said Metzler. “I rely on the committee to provide guidance to Mr. (George) Stokinger (Timberlane business administrator) and myself to get to a good number.”

Metzler gave no specifics on the numbers, talking instead about the general philosophy of putting students first. A graphic with a large arrow pointing to a student at the heart of a bull’s eye was utilized often.

“So when you check your moral compass and think that we need to do something we can afford, we need to be very clear. What can we afford? I’ll ask you a second question, What can we afford not to afford?” said Metzler, using the metaphor that students should not be on the outside looking in at other priorities. One of those other priorities is the tax bill.

“If you’re unwilling to recognize or support the very good things going on at this district, then clearly you don’t have the students, our children, in the best interest,” Metzler said.

Stokinger discussed the budget numbers. The budget is $66,452,054, with the default at $65,974,014.

He said the year’s initial budget proposal showed a $2.6 million, or 4 percent increase, but after review that increase was brought down to $1,431,433.

Explaining the budget drivers, Stokinger said employee salaries are up $1,093,588 (largely due to the implementation of a full day kindergarten program with five full-time equivalent employees), State Retirement is up $172,496, employee insurance is up by $667,023 and other benefits are up by $115,027.

Professional services are up $92,145; books, supplies and equipment by $188,931; out-of-district tuition by $75,510 and transportation by $187,436.

Decreases include bond interest by $84,000, capital reserve fund by $200,000 and the School Administrative Unit (SAU) budget as a separate warrant article of $1,028,131.

The only dissent during the meeting came from Green, who among other statements took issue with  Stokinger’s claim that the budget was only up by $1.4 million.

“The actual increase is $2.5 million,” said Green, arguing that the SAU budget needs to be included in the figure, as it was part of the budget last year, the figure used for comparison.

A warrant article spearheaded by Green last year has forced the SAU budget to a separate article this year, but to compare apples to apples, that sum should be in the math.

“That is not a legitimate way of calculating an increase,” said Green, noting that the district is asking for $67.6 million with the SAU included. “That is the real cost of this budget. I find it very deceptive that you would present this information to the public in this form.”

Stokinger said he had been clear about that in the presentation. “I’m just following the law,” he said.

“The law does not require you to be deceptive,” Green responded.

“Call it what you will, but Mr. (Rob) Collins (chair of the school board) and I were quite clear through our presentation that the SAU budget was not in here, that it was a separate warrant article.”

Green went on to say that she was against the budget because it did not receive proper scrutiny and that while the budget’s cost drivers were clear, what was less clear was the effort made to mitigate those requirements elsewhere in the figures.

“Neither the budget committee nor the school board has given adequate consideration for the tax impact of a $2.5 million cost increase. In Sandown this could raise school taxes by nearly 8 percent before the cost of any warrant articles,” said Green.

Green said after the meeting that when comparing the budget presentation the Timberlane district got to others she’s seen, it was like comparing grade school budget review with Harvard Business School review.

Collins said later that Green’s numbers were speculative, as the population numbers needed to assess tax impact were unknown.

Deliberative session is Feb. 6 at the Timberlane Performing Arts Center in Plaistow, where the budget and moneyed warrant articles will be reviewed. Green has stated she will be looking to bring down the budget’s bottom line at that time.

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