Twin Valley Elementary

Twin Valley Elementary School in Wilmington.

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WILMINGTON — As School Board members came closer to finalizing a budget to go to voters, they received estimated spending plans from Twin Valley principals paving the way to getting out of what is referred to as the “penalty box.”

This budget season involved brainstorming to stop being financially penalized by the state for exceeding a spending threshold, which has been said to be more difficult for smaller or more rural school districts to avoid. Board meetings also have focused on how to use a sizeable surplus or fund balance and present budgets that better reflect Twin Valley’s number of students.

At a remote meeting held Thursday, the board looked at rough draft budgets for the next three fiscal years using significant chunks of the surplus. The first contained a 3.44 percent decrease. The next showed a 1 percent drop in costs followed by a decrease of 0.5 percent.

“There’s deductions that can be taken out of the calculation that reduces the penalty,” Windham Southwest Business Manager Karen Atwood said.

She said when developing their budgets, the principals from the elementary school in Wilmington and middle/high school in Whitingham might not have had all of the information that would better inform the financial impact. Factors determined by the state and not yet known also will affect the number.

As presented, the approximately $8.96 million fiscal year 2022 budget included taking $309,762 from the fund balance to avoid the penalty, followed by $220,146 in FY23 and $264,506 in FY24. Atwood plans to review the figures.

Board member Therese Lounsbury warned against relying too much on expectations in the budget.

“You stalled revenues,” she said. “You stalled penalty thresholds and equalized students. All of those are moving targets.”

Superintendent Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll said the board has traditionally warned articles to put surplus money into a reserve fund for maintenance. She said a consultant hired to help the district strategize its next steps financially suggested the possibility of warning a similar article to put about $50,000 to $75,000 into a reserve fund in case schools were forced to go over budget.

“This is usually only needed when you start having tighter and more right-size budgets,” Komons-Montroll said. “It would be very rare that it would be because of your normal budget. It could happen though due to special education, where it is something out of your control.”

Atwood expressed some concern about warning two articles related to reserve funds, given how controversial they have been in the past due to the exclusion of a dollar figure.

“This is going to be a really hard thing to explain so I think we’re really going to have to push to get as many people on to your informational meeting as possible to have them understand,” she said of the meeting scheduled for Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. on Google Meet.

Dollar amounts could be included on the articles related to reserve funds, Atwood said. But when the warning is being created, she said, the prior year’s fund balance is not yet known.

“We could set a maximum that we’re going to allow them to put in there but we don’t know if we’re going to have that in the fund balance,” she said.

Atwood said if voters reject an article on reserve funds, that will change all the projections reported by the district leading up to the vote. The money would stay in the fund balance under revenue.

The district has more than $700,000 in surpluses now. Recently, the board approved moving $100,000 to the maintenance reserve fund.

Last year, voters approved an article authorizing the board to move an unspecified amount of money from fund balance to the maintenance reserve fund.

In a 4-2 vote Thursday, the board decided against including teacher salaries in the district’s annual report. Board Chairwoman Kathy Larsen said board member Dennis Richter requested considering the move after hearing from community members who wanted the figures back in the document.

Larsen recalled salaries last being seen in the 2017 report.

“They’re negotiated salaries,” she said. “It’s not something that voters had input in so that’s why it wasn’t deemed necessary to remain in there.”

Rebecca Fillion, elementary school principal, said she understands the need for transparency but noted it could be uncomfortable for teachers who live in the district’s two towns and want to attend the annual meeting. She suggested it would be more respectful not to include names with salaries.

Larsen and board member Christy Betit said they haven’t heard from community members who wanted to see the salaries listed. But board members Janna Ewart and Kristy Corey, who voted to include the salaries, said they have. Richter had left the meeting early before the topic came up.

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