March 21, 2019BRISTOL — Voters at the polls have dealt a strong rebuke to the Newfound Area School Board, stripping it of the ability to set the default budget and, in a non-binding vote, asking that proposed capital expenditures of $25,000 or more be placed on separate warrant articles, rather than being buried within the operating budget.
The decisions were not unexpected following a tumultuous year in which the school board turned common practice upside-down by giving special consideration to residents who supported more spending but did not cast ballots, and redefining what constitutes a "one-time expenditure" in order to include new capital improvement items in the default budget, which would take effect if the proposed budget did not pass.
Administrators looking for a way to catch up on long-neglected repairs and maintenance that could not be funded under the school district's tax cap had exploited a provision of the Official Ballot Act, RSA 40:13, that stipulated that the school board could determine what constitutes a one-time expenditure. The school board endorsed the approach, in which a roof repair at the high school was determined to be part of the long-range capital improvement program and, therefore, was part of ongoing maintenance, rather than a one-time expenditure.
When Bristol resident and former school administrator Archie Auger challenged that approach, the school board refused to discuss the question until it was too late to adjust the default budget figure. When angry residents showed up to protest the maneuver, Superintendent Stacy Buckley summoned the police to the meeting, which residents found intimidating.
Vincent Paul Migliore, the school board member from Bridgewater, attempted to strike a middle ground by seeking a policy that would allow residents to vote separately on capital improvement items, but Chair Jeff Levesque of Groton would not allow Migliore to make his case until late in the year, and then termed the effort a "temper tantrum" — a term later picked up by other school board members. The board ultimately determined that there was "no value" in allowing residents to vote on such items.
When the budget committee reviewed the spending plan for 2019-20, it went along with keeping capital improvement items within the operating budget. Don Franklin of Hebron argued that voters might be more likely to reject the spending if they saw it in a separate warrant article.
In discussing the petitioned article that called upon the school board to place capital improvement items in separate articles, Alexandria member Sue Cheney said it would result in "99 warrant articles" but Migliore said the policy he sought would allow the board to determine what qualified for a separate article.
The ballot result had the article passing, 921-625, with Hebron being the only town to vote against it, 38-45.
The other petitioned article, which turned the responsibility of crafting the default budget over to the budget committee, passed, 787-691, with Bridgewater (80-50), Bristol (209-142), Danbury (150-125), and New Hampton (145-95) supporting the change. Alexandria (131-164), Groton (42-69), and Hebron (30-46) voted against the article.
During the deliberative session, Bristol resident Don Milbrand said the school board's definition of "one-time expenditure" runs against the common understanding of what constitutes a one-time cost, and that giving that responsibility to the budget committee would restore the common definition. He said that disputes over how a default budget is calculated may remain if a different body takes over the calculation, but it was time to give it a try.
Voters had increased the proposed operating budget during the deliberative session to $23,424,980, or $58,488 more than the budget committee had recommended spending. Ballot results showed that the article passed, 1,085-543. Only Groton voted against the article, 60-65.
Also passing, 1,044-590, was the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers' union. Again, Groton was the only town voting against the article, 53-73.
Groton also voted, 33-88, against the article placing money into the expendable trust fund for building maintenance, but the article passed, 880-703.
In the only contest on the ballot, Kim Bliss defeated incumbent budget committee member Skip Reilly, 788-425, for the Alexandria seat.
In other ballot results, Sue Cheney was reelected as school board member from Alexandria with 1,210 votes; Melissa Suckling, who had been appointed after Sharon Klapyk of Danbury resigned, was elected with 1,149 votes; and Edward "Ned" Gordon was reelected school district moderator with 1,433 votes.
Migliore did not run for reelection to the school board, and former high school principal Mike O'Malley received 101 write-in votes for the Bridgewater seat. There were scattered write-ins for Bridgewater's seat on the budget committee, with O'Malley receiving 15 votes and Jeff Bird receiving 7.