Melissa Mitchler Budget discussion

Newport resident and educator Melissa Mitchler responds to comment by a previous speaker about the role of paraeducators in schools at the Sugar River Valley Technical Center on Thursday.

NEWPORT — Newport residents convened at the Sugar River Valley Technical Center on Thursday to discuss the school district’s $21 million budget proposal for fiscal year 2021, which would increase the local tax rate by $2.88 if approved.

“We didn’t propose new positions and had no new initiatives,” interim Business Administrator Ed Edmond told the public. “It’s basically running the district as we did this year but with the necessary changes to move forward.”

The proposed budget of $21,012,095 reflects an increase of $1.6 million from the current school year. The increases include a new collective bargaining contract with support staff of $159,000, contractual teacher salaries, $374,000 for out-of-district tuitions for four identified students, and building utilities and some contracted services.

At the Jan. 9 Newport School Board meeting, Edmond explained that in the current-year budget, many requested budget lines, such as for utilities, were made less than the actual need. Using building-heating fuel, for example, Edmond said that the current budget only requested $125,000, when the actual cost is projected to be $200,000.

The school board said that these items were likely reduced in an effort to lower the budget’s overall cost.

During public comments, Newport Selectman Todd Fratzel said that he did not support this budget and that the school board needs to explore downsizing school staff, since that is where most of the district’s expenses are located.

“People care deeply about education, but they can’t afford more,” Fratzel told the school board. “If the community is telling you they can’t afford it, you have to make the tough decisions.

Lisa Ferrigno, an educator at Richards Elementary School, said that she felt “frustrated and angry” to hear people calling for steep budget cuts at this time, as she has seen such a positive turnaround in the classrooms and student attitudes toward learning.

“To make cuts now and go backwards to eliminate a million dollars now — which would be about 10 teachers — is disheartening, especially when we’ve been moving in the right direction,” she said.

Melissa Mitchler, speaking as both a Newport educator and a parent of a child with special needs, countered a public comment that implied that the district had too many paraprofessionals in the classroom.

“Not every class with a special education student gets a paraeducator,” Mitchler said. “That’s a misconception that needs to be cleared up right now. We might get a paraeducator because there is child or multiple [children] sitting in our classroom who could not learn in a normal classroom setting.”

Mitchler said that her daughter, for example, shares a paraeducator with five other students and that cutting paraeducators from the budget could arguably cost the district far more in the process.

“If things were cut from personnel, I would have the right as a parent to go to the school district and say that the needs of my child aren’t not being met in this district,” Mitchler said. “ And I would have the right to look at another school that could meet her needs. Would anyone have an estimate as to what it would cost to send my child to Sunapee?”

In addition to Sunapee’s tuition rate for out-of-district students, the district would still need to pay for a paraeducator, along with any services required under the student’s IEP, which could run close to the $100,000 range.

Newport resident and Sullivan County Commissioner Ben Nelson told the board that he believes that the underlying source of frustration for many residents isn’t the budget cost in itself, but that after several years of financial mismanagement problems in the supervisory union, the public has grown wary.

“If people trust the money and know what’s going on, they’ll do an informed decision,” Nelson said. “It’s hard to [make] an informed decision right now. They don’t want to vote for something if you can’t tell them where the money is.”

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