EXETER — A hearing on the proposed $17.8 million addition to the Cooperative Middle School and the school district’s operating budget drew few public comments Tuesday night.

About 15 members of the public turned out for the Jan. 8 public hearing about the potential expansion to the middle school and a proposed $60,342,073 operating budget.

The next step in the annual voting process for the Exeter Region Cooperative School District is the deliberative session on Feb. 7, which is followed by ballot voting on March 12.

It will mark the third year in a row that a building proposal for the middle school has been on the ballot. A prior proposal failed to gain the needed 60 percent approval for the past two years. The current proposal represents a scaled-down version.

“We heard loud and clear last year at our March voting that taxpayers saw a need to improve what we were doing with space, but there was a price tag associated with it that was a bit more reasonable in their minds,” SAU 16 Superintendent David Ryan said.

The new proposal would add 10 more classrooms, expand the cafeteria, add a multi-purpose room with storage, a second elevator, and create offices in a former tech ed space, currently being used for alt PE. It would get all teachers and students out of makeshift offices and instructional spaces in closets.

CMS Building Renewal Committee Co-Chair Lucy Cushman said the committee worked to prioritize needs at the school as they worked to bring forward a less costly plan. “Tonight, we have a proposal we think meets most of the needs of the students at the Cooperative Middle School,” Cushman said.

The plan would not add a second gymnasium or dedicated music space, two areas that were included in the failed plan.

CMS Principal Patty Wons said the need for more classrooms has been there since the beginning. “When the building opened, it was 10 classrooms short,” Wons said. “It continues to be 10 classrooms short.”

The plan would allow Alt PE to move to the new multi-purpose room, which would also provide a space for the wrestling team (currently using space in the cafeteria) to practice and store their mats. Alt PE currently takes place six periods of the day.

An expanded cafeteria would enable the school to serve all students lunch in three, rather than six, periods.

“It limits the academic schedule,” Wons said of the existing cafeteria, where students start lunch at 10 a.m. “A cafeteria or lunch schedule should not dictate or mandate your academic schedule.”

The original proposal, which had a price of $21.9 million at the 2017 vote, and a $23 million cost this past year, would now cost $27.2 million.

Superintendent Ryan presented an overview of the district’s proposed $60,342,073 operating budget, which he prefaced with a sampling of student success stories.

Ryan outlined his top four priorities for this year’s budget process, including a zero percent increase on the general fund budget, with a goal of an operating budget of under $60 million. A second goal was to reduce the unassigned fund balance, or money in the approved budget not spent in the fiscal year, to no more than 3 percent of the budget. For example, the past few years, the district has finished the fiscal year with an unassigned fund balance of just over $3 million, which last year equated to 5.13 percent. They are anticipating about a $1.5 million balance in this budget, Ryan said.

The superintendent also wanted to establish a baseline to correlate student achievement expectations with cost drivers in the budget. To do this, they reviewed student scores in grades 3 to 8 and then again in grade 11 to establish a baseline of where they are with student achievement. This information was used as a starting point to decide where they need to devote more time, energy and funds.

Budget drivers this time around included an 8.4 percent guaranteed not to exceed healthcare cost estimate, which the district reduced to 5.54 percent based on their review of actual costs. Special education was able to reduce their overall budget by two percent, while also adding an assistant special education director for the high school and increasing an occupational therapist from .6 to a full-time position.

Both the proposed operating budget and default budget were amended down by $400,000 due to a coding snafu in the accounting software system which resulted in one teacher’s salary being over budgeted, Markiewicz said, by overstating how many days the person worked in a year. No extra funds were actually paid, but they had been included as part of the overall budget draft.