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Chairman: Schools should plan for possible staff cuts

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WESTMINSTER — The chairman of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union believes schools in the four-town district have to start making contingency plans about teacher staffing levels in the likely event of serious education funding shortfalls because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus panedemic.

David M. Clark said Monday that he hoped school boards that are part of the supervisory union would have a serious discussion in the next two weeks about what level of staffing the schools can sustain, given the financial uncertainty.

Clark, of Westminster West and also a member of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, said boards should have the difficult discussion about staffing levels, and whether to offer teachers their contracts by the April 15 deadline.

If the school boards don't make decisions, the contracts will automatically renew on April 15, he said, and commit the schools to a level of spending that might not be sustainable or even possible.

"We have two weeks before the boards have to make some tough decisions about the financial realities," said Clark. The boards will face RIFs — or reduction in force.

And, he said, the school boards have to revisit the early retirement incentives that are offered teachers. Teachers and support staff have different contracts with the school boards.

"It is my personal opinion that the boards, in addition to weighing the question of reduction in force, should also give consideration to reopening and possibly modify, by widening the criteria for consideration of early retirement incentives. I'm putting this proposal into play at this time because there may be teachers who for health reasons, or out of other considerations, might want to have another opportunity to reconsider the option of early retirement," he said Monday.

He said it was only fair that the school boards revisit their budgets because many of its taxpayers are losing their jobs — or will be — because of the drastic financial upheavals.

Clark said voters have approved both the BFUHS budget and the Rockingham school budget; voters in the Westminster-Grafton-Athens elementary unified district don't vote on their annual joint budget until April 9, and there are plans to delay that vote for another three weeks because of the pandemic.

Clark said he has been fielding a lot of criticism since last Wednesday's vote to set up a process for laying off paraeducators in the supervisory union. He said the vast majority of the paras could not be laid off because they work with special education students in one-on-one programs.

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Jack Bryar, who is chairman of the Windham Northeast Unified Elementary school district, and is also Grafton's representative to the supervisory union, said he is not in favor of hitting "the panic button," but he said he is definitely in favor of the various school districts coming up with some kind of contingency plans.

Last week, a report by the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office told legislative members that the state school funding program faced a $35 million to $45 million shortfall, and that the $12.9 million surplus had already evaporated.

School funding comes not just from property taxes, but also from a complex combination of various other taxes — rooms and meals, sales taxes and property transfer taxes.

Bryar said he was told by state Agency of Education officials that while the state expects to make all payments by the end of the fiscal year, the 2020-21 year is another matter.

"Hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel and it's not an incoming train," Bryar said.

Lily Hart, one of four teachers who comprise the leadership of the teachers' union, said the union would have a statement on the issue later in the week.

Bryar said the unified elementary school district, made up of Westminster, Grafton and Athens, was slated to hold its first-ever annual meeting on April 9, but that isn't feasible, given all the state orders to social distance and not gather in groups larger than 10.

He said he expected he and another school district officer would entertain a motion to postpone the meeting, probably for three weeks.

"We've told people not to come," he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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