School budget continues to be a source of contention in Salem

Salem — It's unusual that an official in this small, close-knit town feels the need to open a meeting by reminding participants to "please be considerate, please be respectful and treat your neighbors kindly."

But that's how Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher kicked off Wednesday night's public hearing before moderating four hours of discussion on the proposed $15 million 2014-15 town budget. Nearly 100 people, many of them parents of children in Salem School, filled the school gym and made comments that sometimes veered into criticism of school management.

"That's unusual for Salem," said finance board member Carole Eckart. "It's the fist time in 30 years I've heard (large numbers of) people unhappy with the school itself."

Although parents were critical of the school, some were hesitant to support a higher budget for the Board of Education, which the finance board had set at $10.5 million. On Thursday, the Board of Finance left the number unchanged.

The education budget, which comprises approximately 73 percent of the overall budget, has been a point of tension throughout the budgeting process. Salem School officials argued that they needed $10.8 million to avoid drastic cuts, but finance board members were hoping to fund no more than $10.3 million.

The finance board settled on $10.5 million in what they saw as a compromise, but school board members weren't happy.

School officials worried parents when they said they may be forced to cut popular programs, like sports, language and the late bus. But even after finding a way to leave those programs untouched with $10.5 million, board members said the trend of tighter school budgets was unacceptable and unanimously voted down budget cuts in what school board Chairman Stephen Buck called an act of "civil disobedience."

The Board of Finance has the authority to determine the total amount of the school board's budget, pending resident approval in a referendum, but they cannot change the school budget on a line-by-line level. So the school board's decision not to approve the cuts was simply to send a message; the board has no power to increase its budget.

But the failure to approve a $10.5 million budget was a "disservice to the town," said Board of Finance clerk George Householder, because it robbed residents of the ability to see how the budget being voted on would affect the school.

The school did, however, provide the finance board on Thursday with a copy of proposed cuts to get to $10.5 million, including textbook cuts, supply reductions and changes to technology upgrades.

None of the cuts affected the school administration, which parents at Wednesday's meeting argued is too large and eating up too much of the school's budget.

Many parents who spoke Wednesday night felt that the quality of Salem School has been declining and that money is being spent in the wrong place - namely, to support what they called a top-heavy administration rather than teachers and general education.

But there was no clear consensus among the parents as to whether a $10.3 million, $10.5 million or $10.8 million school budget was the solution. All they could agree on was that something at the school needed to change - a concern that needs to be addressed beyond a budget line.

Board of Finance members agreed that the difficult job falls on the Board of Education to re-evaluate how its budget is spent.

"It hard to think (of), it's hard to plan, it's hard to implement transformational changes," said finance board member Gregory Preston. "But we're at the point now where it's got to be done."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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