WINCHESTER — Voters at Thursday’s deliberative session appeared to take sides — for school spending on the left, for lower taxes on the right.
Whenever someone said something in support of the school, the left side of the Winchester School gymnasium seemed to clap a little louder. Whenever someone said something in line with budget cuts and keeping the tax rate down, the right clapped louder.
Voters at the Winchester School District deliberative session voted 102-71 to cut the district’s budget to $10,835,479. That’s down from the school board’s recommendation of $11,510,850, which is up 3.4 percent from the current year.
The default budget is $11,554,845.
The budget was one of two articles amended at Thursday’s session, ending months of back and forth between the town’s budget committee and the school board.
It’s usually the budget committee’s recommendation that goes before voters, but the school board charged that committee did not follow proper procedure this year, invalidating its budget recommendation of $9,197,777.
The district’s attorney, Matthew H. Upton of Portsmouth, said the state’s Department of Revenue Administration agreed the school board’s budget should appear on the warrant since the budget committee never discussed revenue or the warrant articles at a public hearing.
Brian D. Moser, budget committee chairman, disagreed and asked to see that decision in writing.
“The budget committee did its job,” he said.
Richard Horton, a member of the budget committee who is running for school board, made the motion to cut the budget. He said the school board in years past has over-budgeted for certain accounts, including tuition to Keene High School and for utilities at the school.
Paring those down, along with cutting administrators’ time and salaries, would bring the tax rate down, Horton said.
The school board’s budget would “tax us right out of our home,” said Marcia H. Young, who said she is disabled and recently widowed.
“We have to think of the people in this town who are trying to survive,” she added.
Last year the school portion of the tax rate rose $3.50 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The district ran a deficit last year of nearly $327,000 after it overspent on areas including teacher salaries, health benefits, tuition to Keene and special education transportation, according to the district.
But others at Thursday’s session said it was irresponsible to not leave a cushion in the budget in case more students move into the district.
“Kids come and go constantly and unfortunately they arrive more then they leave,” said school board member Kevan Whippie.
As for pay cuts for administrators, these have not been investigated and should not be done in “a random, emotional way,” said resident Christopher J. Thompson.
But William McGrath, who is also running for school board, said when he was on the committee that looked at withdrawing from N.H. School Administrative Unit 38 and forming a new unit for the district, that committee expected lower salaries. He suggested some positions were given to people and not advertised at lower rates.
Christine E. Wallace garnered applause from the right when she compared the district’s spending to private companies that are being forced to scale back.
“We’re all hurting. We have to have responsible discussions and we have to cut the budget,” she said.
“In this economy, increases don’t make sense.”
But, as one woman reminded the crowd, voters approve a total budget number and it is up to the school board to spend where it likes. Administration may not be cut in the end, she said.
The only other article amended at the session was a petition article asking the district to form a committee to study withdrawing students from Keene High School and reopening Thayer High School, which closed in 2005. The article also asks for $5,000 to hire an economist to look at the cost.
That figure was cut to $1 in a 41-21 vote. (After the budget vote there was small exodus.) Selectmen Chairman Sherman Tedford made that motion, saying $5,000 was too much to spend this year.
But discussion was not limited to the amendments.
The warrant also asks voters to do away with the budget committee’s role in the school district budget.
School board Chairwoman Colleen M. Duquette said this year showed the budget committee does not have the school in mind, at one point setting the budget at $8 million, which school officials said was impossibly low.
“They want to dismantle our school,” she said.
Others spoke in support of the budget committee, saying it’s meant to provide a check on the school board and its spending.
Another petition article would give the budget committee the power to set the default budget.
Voting will takes place March 13 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Winchester Town Hall.
Abby Spegman can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1409, or firstname.lastname@example.org.