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Pembroke rejects pay raises for teachers

PEMBROKE - Pembroke’s School District Meeting on Saturday, March 9, proved to be a showdown between austerity and education spending, with a teacher contract and the operating budget serving as the battleground for those advocating deep cuts, and those arguing for education spending as an essential investment.

The first item to draw significant debate was a collective-bargaining agreement between the School Board and the district’s teachers union. The contract would have provided a total salary and benefit increase of $448,675 in 2013-14 and a $496,227 increase in 2014-15.

Supporters noted that Pembroke teaching salaries are below state averages, and argued that the district could find it increasingly difficult to remain competitive and attract highly qualified and talented teachers at the current rates. Detractors characterized the increase as unaffordable, noting that Pembroke’s medium income is also below state averages.

Supporters also criticized the claims that the contract should be voted down in the name of affordability and “responsible government,” arguing that education should be a priority for the town.

The warrant went to a ballot vote, where it was rejected 90-75. The Education Association of Pembroke and the School Board will now have to meet again to negotiate a new contract proposal to bring before the voters.

The operating budget also produced significant debate, as increased mandatory expenses pushed the district’s request up more than $500,000.

The state’s downshifting of all retirement costs to to the municipalities alone pushed an additional $385,000 onto the district. Other nondiscretionary increases include approximately $70,000 in insurance costs, $100,000 in federal insurance contributions, $95,000 in previously approved contract increases, $24,000 in SAU expenses, and a $109,000 increase in electricity costs, due to a PSNH accounting error which left them undercharging for some time.

In total, nondiscretionary increases came to about $783,000. The proposed operating budget was only set to increase by $699,000 from last year, however, due to cuts made within the district.
A significant portion of these cuts was the elimination of 10 positions within the district – nine of them support staff, one of them a teacher.

Several residents who spoke against the contracts, however, argued that the district should do even more to absorb the new costs and make the budget more affordable.

One of these residents, Dan Boyer, presented an amendment to cut an additional $393,209 out of the budget, figured at about half of the total increase from 2012-13. The School Board balked at this proposal.

Critics, however, were not swayed.

“Why is it that we can’t take (the previous year’s budget), bring that forward to this year, apply a 1.7 percent increase, which is the rate of inflation, and be done with it?” said Karen Dowling.
After this exchange, Budget Committee Vice Chairman Gerry Fleury approached the public microphone to speak as a resident, where he emphatically criticized the amendment.

“I would just like to ask for a little bit of collective sanity at this meeting,” he said. “This is going to be a 3 percent increase in our taxes if you pass the Budget Committee’s recommended budget. Now, I’m not thrilled with that, but to do what we’re trying to do here, and to just arbitrarily throw numbers at it, that’s ludicrous. We need to stop this silly discussion.”

The amendment failed overwhelmingly, and the Budget Committee’s proposed budget subsequently passed by an even larger margin.

As of now, the anticipated local school tax rate will be $16.96 per $1,000 of property value, a 4 percent increase from last year, or 3.2 percent when the drop in the state school tax rate is accounted for.

Voters will consider the next part of the budget, town spending, on Saturday, March 16, at 10 a.m., at Pembroke Academy, during the Town Meeting.

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