A question and answer column, by Kearsarge School Board Chairman, Ken Bartholomew:
Question 1: Why are there three options for the school budget this March?
Answer: Under the Charter and Articles of Agreement governing the Kearsarge cooperative school district budget process, the school board recommends a budget to the Municipal Budget Committee (the "MBC"). Then, the MBC deliberates and recommends its own budget amount. This amount may be the same, lower, or even higher than the school board's budget number. This year, the MBC's number is the same as the school board's.
Then, at the deliberative session held in January, voters discuss the budget and have the ability to add a third budget number to the warrant by majority vote. This year, the voters at the deliberative session voted unanimously to add a third number, which is $350,000 less than the school board and MBC numbers.
Question 2: Why did the voters at the deliberative session add a third option?
The district discovered in the Fall that the high school wastewater treatment plant, which is 12 years beyond its expected life, is at risk of failing and needs to be replaced. The best option presented for this work is to replace the wastewater treatment plant with a large septic system. The pumping station also needs to be replaced. Because of the critical nature of this project (without a working wastewater treatment plant, the high school would need to haul away wastewater in septic trucks), the school board added the cost of this project (estimated at $350,000) to the 2017-18 budget. The MBC agreed with this addition.
After placing this item into the budget, the school board decided to look into whether it could expedite this project by using money in the district contingency fund, which was created with voter approval in 2012-13. The contingency fund is money set aside each year from budget savings for emergency use which totals up to 2.5% of the budget, or about $820,000. Note that this fund is not additive, meaning the amount not used each year gets returned to the taxpayers through the towns. Using any of this fund requires the approval of the school board, MBC and state Department of Education.
Ultimately, the district received permission to use money from the contingency fund for this $350,000 project, but approval was not received until mid-December, after the school board and MBC budget numbers were published. At that point, it seemed like the best option would be to ask the voters at the January deliberative session to add a third option, representing a $350,000 reduction to the budget. That option was presented and approved unanimously, 126-0, at the deliberative session. All school Board and MBC members present at the meeting voted in favor of the third option.
Question 3: Why does the warrant say the school board and MBC "recommend" the higher budget number?
At the time that the school board and MBC met to vote on the budget for the last time, it was not clear if the district would get approval to use the contingency fund money for the high school wastewater treatment project. Because of the critical nature of the project, the board and MBC felt that it was essential that money be budgeted for the project in case the request to use contingency fund money was denied. The process of gaining approval from the state DOE for withdrawing from the contingency fund has not been used often and was somewhat unclear. While the effort ultimately proved successful, it was prudent to have the project money in the 2017-18 budget as a back up.
Although the school board and MBC members all favor the third option, regulations do not allow either body to "recommend" an option other than the number last recommended and published by those bodies.
Question 4: So, is there any reason to vote for the school board or MBC budget instead of the third option?
In my opinion, no. The money for the wastewater treatment plan will be coming out of the contingency fund, and planning is underway to begin that project as soon as school ends this Summer. Note that, as a result, the high school will not be available for use this Summer. If the school board or MBC budget number is passed instead of this third option, we will not use $350,000 of that money and it will eventually be returned to the voters. It makes more sense, though, to not appropriate more money than needed in the first instance.
Question 5: When will the contingency fund money be replaced and how?
The best news about this project is that the new septic system will not require water testing or maintenance as intense as the former wastewater treatment plant did. That will save the district about $90,000 in operating expenses each year. As a result, we will be able to replenish the contingency fund over four years without any additional cost to the taxpayers.
Kearsarge School District
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