TAMWORTH — Over 100 residents at Wednesday's annual school district meeting grappled with issues surrounding declining enrollment, increasing cost and student nutrition.

While residents chose to add more to the budget, a "focus group" is being formed to look ahead to see how the school district can position itself in the face of challenging demographics. Tamworth's KA Brett School covers kindergarten through eighth grade.

The district's proposed operating budget was a hot topic at the meeting. At the outset of the meeting, the proposed budget was $6,965,767 and that represented a $224,000 increase over last year.

Chairman Jack Waldron explained that in the face of declining enrollment the school board is reducing three teaching positions due to retirements to save $77,000. He said over the past five years, the population has dropped from a high of about 235 to 184. Waldron said that Kennett High School tuition payment increased by $124,000 and the cost of special education increased by $318,000 to $1.2 million.

Waldron further explained that the school board only has control over about a third of the budget and the other two thirds is mandated spending.

"I just want to make it clear to people when we look at the budget much of this budget is not something we have any choice over," said Waldron.

One of the most dramatic moments of the meeting happened when Madeline Siniscalchi made a motion to cut the budget to $6,763,796 or about $202,000.

"If the current budget passes there would be a 60 cent increase on our school portion of the taxes. In addition to that, if everything is voted in, you could have a $2 increase in the town portion," said Siniscalchi adding Tamworth taxes are already high. "School enrollment, as you mentioned is down, and it seems to be continually going down."

She went on to say that 57 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch.

"If families can't afford food, they can't afford taxes," she said.

Selectmen's chair Steve Gray told the Sun in an interview that the town's increase might not be that bad. He said the town got a better price than expected on repair of a bridge.

But residents at the meeting roundly rejected Siniscalchi's reasoning and defeated her amendment by a paper ballot vote of 90-18.

A majority of residents actually wanted to spend more than the school board suggested, by passing a motion by Bob Streeter to add $12,000 to the budget for the purpose of funding a the school garden coordinator. He explained that the position was grant funded for the past three years but those funds are going away. The coordinator runs green house, teaches students about gardening and nutrition, grows food and finds local foods for the students to eat.

"It's been a positive thing to have some gardening going on at the school, kid's learning about where their food comes from and making healthy food choices," said Streeter.

Waldron agreed with Streeter that it has been a "valuable" position but the budget was just getting too high to support it with tax dollars, in his opinion. Waldron said the position predated the grant funds. 

"We have a very, very large budget; we have a very, very large burden," said Waldron. "I think this is a program that can be run with volunteers."

A majority of voters sided with Streeter and the additional $12,000 was approved, 82-27. The budget with the money for the garden coordinator was finally approved in a vote of 84-17.

Toward the end of the meeting, outgoing school board member Helen Steele announced that a focus group meeting has been scheduled as part of the board's "strategic school long range planning initiative."

The focus group, led by Steele and Nathaniel Winship, who is also leaving the school board this year, will meet March 18 at 6 p.m. at the Brett School's Spanish room. The goal is to look at the next five years. The issues that will be discussed by the group will include enrollment, the school budget, the school's garden and computer technology.

The focus group, which is under the auspices under the school board, will also be distributing a survey and will be holding a listening session in April. The focus group's goal is to issue a report by June 20.

"I'm hoping to hear from some of you, especially people that are really worried about the budget, people that are really worried about enrollment, taxes, competency and school safety," said Steele. "We want to hear all of your ideas."

After Steele spoke, resident David Little came to the microphone to suggest that the school board look into hiring an outside consultant.

"We're seeing two trends of the budget going up and enrollment going down for the last 20 years and they don't seem like they are going to end any time soon," said Little. "We have kicked around a whole lot of ideas in this town and I think it's time to get outside advice to see if anyone else has a better solution. ... We need to do something."

Residents approved Tamworth's share of SAU 13 budget ($257,963 which was $8,000 lower than last year) by a vote of 92-8 and a collective bargaining agreement with the Tamworth Education Support Personnel Association by an overwhelming show of cards.

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