December 9, 2010

Lawmakers urge optimism on school funding issue

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- While Derry school officials are busy preparing a budget that braces for the anticipated loss of $7.1 million in state aid, legislators remain optimistic that a funding collar will be put back in place before that loss is realized.
“I think it’s very important for the School Board and Pinkerton and the Town Council to realize that there will be a very, very strong effort to put the collar back on,” said incoming state Sen. Jim Rausch during a joint meeting with Derry town and school officials and other legislators Tuesday.
If the current “hold-harmless” collar on state adequacy funding formula expires as planned in June, Derry would lose $7.1 million next year, more than any other community in the state.
But Rausch said Tuesday that he believes there is enough legislative support for a collar to come through before next school year. The question, he said, is whether or not something can be done in time to put a restored budget before voters in March.
If state aid is restored after the district’s budget is approved in March, Derry Superintendent Mary Ellen Hannon said the district would have to hold a special election or hearing to use that money, unless legislators granted an exception to allow districts to access the money automatically.
But getting a collar in place is only a temporary fix, Rausch said, as legislators are expected to weigh options of new funding formulas and constitutional amendments to solve the larger issue.
“There will be multiple battles,” he told the group gathered Tuesday. “What I can leave you with is that it is a work in progress and that I do believe the first step will be the collar.”
Town Councilor Joel Obricht said that he hoped for consistency, no matter what changes are made at the state level.
“Just find a formula and stick with it over the long term,” he said. “Quit telling communities that one year they’re going to be $30 million down and then $30 million up. One year Derry has funding and the next thing we know it’s $7 million down. It makes so sense.”
With much left to be decided, Rausch said the board should continue preparing a lean budget just in case.
The current proposal, which has yet to be finalized by the school board, would cut more than $4.5 million and 60 professional positions from the district.
And while Hannon said there are a few key positions she would like to restore if state aid does comes through, she said she would advocate for returning much of that money to Derry voters on the tax rate.
“I’ve been very clear with my board and with the teachers that this is a time to look at what we’re doing and how to tighten our belts,” she said. “... The people in Derry have supported schools endlessly for as long as I’ve been here and it’s time to give money to the taxpayers that cannot afford the tax rates in town.”
School Board member Brenda Willis said Tuesday that she was frustrated after assurances from Gov. John Lynch that the funding issue would be fixed by now.
“I believed we would not be in this situation, and I am tremendously disappointed that we are,” Willis said. “But I’m proud of what the administration has done and the budget we have worked out and I think we’ll be OK in the end.”
The other major school issue brought up Tuesday by both Pinkerton Academy and Derry school officials was the additional staff time required by new bullying and truancy laws without any increases in funding to pay for the mandates.
On the town side, officials highlighted concerns about the funding of Interstate 93 expansion, uncertainty about municipal contributions to the state’s pension plan and support for new legislation to extend best management practices to private winter salt applicators. 

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