TOWNSEND -- The North Middlesex Regional School Committee discussed a proposed 2 percent budget increase for fiscal year 2015 at a public hearing Monday night.
The hike would bring the district budget to $45.96 million, and would mean increased assessments of more than 3 percent for the towns of Townsend and Ashby.
After a large increase in its assessment last fiscal year, Pepperell would see a 0.46 percent decrease in 2015.
Townsend's assessment would increase by $240,000, Ashby's by $94,000, and Pepperell's would decrease by $47,000, for an overall increase in local contributions of 1.39 percent.
"Our budget priorities were maintaining class size and maintaining our educational programs that we have right now in the district," Superintendent Joan Landers said.
Townsend Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan asked the School Committee to consider lowering the budget to avoid the strain that the increased assessments would place on the district's member towns.
"We would ask that the School Committee look again this year to squeeze any savings that can be found in this budget," Sheehan said. "Optimistically, I would ask that the assessment for Townsend at least remain level funded with fiscal 2014. Otherwise we're going to be faced with some significant problems and challenges in Townsend."
Those challenges include large increases in health care and retirement expenses without a Proposition 2 1/2 override to help fund the growing costs, Sheehan said.
Landers said some of the budget numbers were still in flux, and her office would continue to look for reductions in order to present a budget that would meet Sheehan's request.
"We have to continue to look at revenue sources and also ways to save in the district, and we will continue to do that prior to Town Meeting," Landers said.
In order to meet Sheehan's request for a level-funded assessment in Townsend and also lower the other towns' assessments proportionally, Business Administrator Nancy Haines said the total budget would need to be reduced by about $600,000.
Those reductions could come in part from adjustments to the district's opt-out insurance program or negotiations in transportation costs, Landers said.
However, she said the budget is skimmed down as it is.
"The fiscal 2015 budget is very tight. We have looked at every area," Landers said.
Committee member Robert Templeton said with many line items already decreased from fiscal 2014, cutting further without affecting students would be nearly impossible.
"You're not going to cut more than $600,000 without impacting your class sizes. I can't see it," Templeton said.
Pepperell resident Rachel Loprinze questioned the committee's willingness to cater to Townsend's request after the town failed to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override in 2012 that would have raised money for the school budget.
"Ashby and Pepperell passed an override specifically so we could keep class sizes down. Townsend failed to pass an override, but now we're going to entertain a request to reduce the budget by $600,000. I think Townsend needs to deal with the situation based on how their members voted," Loprinze said.
The budget as proposed includes a reduction of eight regular teachers, which would result in class sizes ranging from 17 to 26 students.
Landers said that the reduction in teachers is the result of more than 12 teachers who are planning to retire. The district is planning to move teachers around to cover the grade levels with the greatest needs, she said.
"We are trying to absorb the decrease in staffing without laying people off," Landers said.
The number of principals, assistant principals, guidance counselors and secretaries would not change.
The School Committee will be discussing possibilities for reducing the budget at its next meeting on March 3. Members must vote to adopt a budget by March 18.
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