More than 20 teachers were at the meeting to lend support for a statement read by elementary school teacher Amy Swanson, the spokesperson for the Windham Southwest Teachers’ Association and Twin Valley Teachers’ Association. Swanson, a 16-year veteran in the supervisory union, said that teachers began the year working on an expired contract for the first time in 20 years. She also reminded board members that teachers have received no pay raise in two of the last three years.
“Every one of us teachers here tonight understands that money is tight,” Swanson said. “With building projects, unfair state education funding, unknown health care costs, legal fees, (teacher) buyouts, and administrative raises, the list of choices the board has to make is endless.”
Swanson urged the board to negotiate with union representatives to hammer out a new contract. “Boards before you, facing equal financial hardships and unknowns, always chose to put their faith in teachers by negotiating fair four-year contracts that let (boards) plan ahead and let teachers teach. We urge you to work with us to reach a fair settlement on a contract that recognizes the commitment shown every day by my colleagues and me. That’s the only way to attract and retain teachers and to make sure we have the employment stability to build a great school system for the 21st century.”
Board members thanked Swanson for the statement, but offered no further discussion of the issue.
WSSU Superintendent Richard McClements told board members that, less than halfway through the school year, the school budget is, essentially, in a deficit. Subtracting the balance of “encumbered” expenditures, such as teachers’ salaries and benefits and contracted services, there is a balance of about $287,000 in “unencumbered” expenses left in the budget.
Business manager Karen Atwood said she estimates that around $150,000 of the unencumbered budget items will need to be spent between now and the end of the fiscal year, but it appears unlikely that there will be enough money on hand to fund the expenditures. According to supervisory union figures, there’s a revenue shortfall of $296,020.
McClements said the “overall deficit is about $150,000.”
Most of the shortfall in projected revenue is in elementary and secondary tuition, according to WSSU figures. The board projected elementary tuition revenue of $66,000 – none has been collected. The board projected $666,000 in secondary tuition – only $422,000 has been collected, leaving a shortfall of $244,000. McClements says the board simply overestimated the number of tuition students. “We have more than 20 fewer kids than we thought we would get,” McClements said. “It just goes to show, smart budgeting means you always underestimate revenues and overestimate expenditures.”
The board has faced criticism from the public in the past, however, when end-of-year fund balances have appeared excessive or chronic.
This year’s deficit may compound pressure on next year’s budget, which is already facing cuts. According to preliminary estimates, next year’s Twin Valley budget could increase by $248,865 – or about 2.5%. While that may not be a shocking increase, the draft budget’s impact on local tax rates could be as high as 23 cents. The increase in tax rates is due to a number of factors – including a reduced revenue estimate and an increase in the statewide tax. Atwood said the two towns’ common level of appraisal figures could also have an impact if there’s a significant change in real estate values.
Whitingham’s projected residential education tax rates for the next fiscal year could be as high as $1.72, and in Wilmington the rate could be even higher, at $1.73. But the figures are only preliminary. Board members indicated their intent to bring those numbers down. And McClements said the district plans to step up its efforts to recruit tuition students. The new elementary and new middle/high school may make their efforts more successful. “We’ve got to do a far better job of recruiting kids to the high school,” McClements said. “We have 60 students or thereabouts from Halifax, Stamford, and Readsboro who go to high school elsewhere – some go to Massachusetts schools. Those 60 kids would make a big difference at Twin Valley. Now that the high school is relocating to Whitingham, it may be more convenient for some of those students.”