CLAREMONT — By an overwhelming majority, Claremont residents approved to appropriate $650,000 in unanticipated state aid to create and expand special education programs, at a special meeting Thursday.
More than 70 residents attended the meeting at the Stevens High School auditorium to consider a proposal by the Claremont School Board to spend half of the $1.3 million in unanticipated state aid it received in September to fund three district programs, which the district aims to save considerable taxpayer money and even provide new revenue from tuitioning in students from other districts.
The voice vote was so indisputably in favor of the motion, the school board did not need to call for a ballot vote.
“I’m very excited for the future of Claremont students and schools,” Superintendent Michael Tempesta said after the meeting.
The district may begin work planning and developing three key programs after securing voter approval.
One program, the PRIDE (Project based Respectful Individualized Data driven Education) program, currently serves six elementary school students who are currently unable to learn in the mainstream population. This program, initiated this school year, provides education to students with special needs in district, rather than having to send them to an out-of-district school.
The district will use $182,000 to create a second classroom with a capacity to add eight tuition students.
The district will also use $293,000 to create an autism program, which Tempesta said would enable the district to circumvent sending three current students out of district this year and likely bring three out-of-district students back to Claremont next year. The district also hopes to eventually to bring in tuition students from other districts, as there is a need in the region for autism-specialized programs.
For the third program, the district will appropriate $175,000 to refund the Stevens High School Alternative Program. This program could serve approximately 30 high school students who are identified as at-risk of dropping out, through small-class content instruction, credit recovery opportunities, mentoring and job placements.
Proponents for the funding said this money provides Claremont a critical opportunity to recapture hundreds of thousands of dollars it sends out of district and potentially generate its own streams of revenue.
“We may have money this year and money next year, but this is not sustainable,” State Rep. Walter A. Stapleton (R-Ward III) said. “So we take the money and put it to immediate use; help the kids, stop the loss and create a revenue potential to help the schools and the city.”
School Board Chair Frank Sprague explained that this $1.3 million represents part of the district stabilization grant, which the state restored to its full amount in the state budget. The state originally gave stabilization grants to New Hampshire districts whose student populations have a higher rate of needs. The city’s stabilization grant was originally $6.2 million per year. But in 2015, the state decided to incrementally phase out these grants, at a rate of 4% per year for 25 years. The restored aid is only guaranteed in the current state budget.
Resident Jeremy Herrell raised his concern to the board about the risk should these programs fail to deliver.
“If we spend this money, what kind of guarantee do we have as taxpayers, parents and [caregivers] that this program is going to work,” Herrell asked. “What kind of guarantees do we have?”
Tempesta responded by referencing his experience creating these programs in Massachusetts, where his team tripled the size of their autism program in less than three years.
“There’s a lot of work to do to pull this off,” Tempesta said. “But we’ve already seen initial success [in the PRIDE classroom] with our team of educators. If you have that, and hard work, in the end I’m very confident we will have success. There are no guarantees in anything in life, but I’m as confident in this as anything I’ve done the past 27 years.”
The remaining $650,000 will return to the taxpayers through a revenue offset in the next school budget. The board made that decision at a related public hearing held on Nov. 7.
After the meeting, Herrell said that while he entered the meeting inclined to vote against the proposal, the discussion provided such convincing rationale that he voted in favor.
Ed. note, Nov. 22, 2019 - Changed the meaning of the acronym PRIDE. Changed "PRIDE classroom" to "PRIDE program" as there are two classrooms at Maple Ave. Elementary. The program currently serves six students, not three.