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Committee discusses public relations suggestions

August 25, 2009
ALTON — The members of the Alton Central School Buildings and Grounds Public Relations subcommittee asked their colleagues on the larger committee for input last week on the ideas and suggestions raised during their most recent meeting.

Committee Chairwoman and subcommittee member Marilyn Dame handed out an e-mail she received on Aug. 16 from Steve Renner, a local parent who recently joined the Public Relations subcommittee.

Renner, she said, sent out an informal survey to 20 friends and fellow parents asking them how they would prefer to receive information on any space needs warrant articles the school district plans to bring forward next year.

When asked what method of communication was most convenient for them, Dame said, six of the local residents surveyed said they preferred e-mail, while three preferred the school Web site, and one preferred printed handouts.

Asked which form of media they felt would most accurately convey any space needs proposals, six said e-mail, three said mailings, three chose the Web site, two said local newspapers, and two felt a question-and-answer session with district officials would be the best option.

In response to the next question, asking what specific time of day they would most likely be able to attend informational forums on the proposal, five of the residents surveyed said 7 p.m. would work for them, while two said they would not attend any forums.

Asked how they would like to be contacted if committee members were to start a "get out the vote" campaign, six of the survey takers said e-mail, one said phone, and one preferred printed flyers.

Asked to list the reasons why they might not have voted on school district ballots in recent years, those surveyed provided answers ranging "Didn't know enough about the ballot measures" to "Inconvenient polling times" and "I forgot."

When asked whether they were aware that absentee ballots were available for both the town and school district elections, five answered "No" and two answered "Yes."

"The striking answers for me so far," Renner wrote, "are (1) that people are available only at 7:00 (not any other time of day was given); (2) e-mail was the most preferred method of communication, and that print and Q&A sessions were not preferred; (3) four out of seven responders did not vote on the school ballot in recent years; and (4) five out of seven were not aware of absentee ballots.

"I think we have our work cut out on changing the way information is distributed to reach a larger and more receptive audience," he added.

Selectmen's liaison Peter Bolster suggested that the e-mail-friendly results of the survey might have been skewed by the fact that it was sent out via e-mail.

Re-capping the ideas discussed by the Public Relations subcommittee, Principal Bonnie Jean Kuras said they had thought about asking Town Clerk Lisa Noyes to attend a forum or film a brief segment for LRPA-TV explaining how to obtain and turn in an absentee ballot as part of a "get out the vote" campaign.

Commenting that Candidates' Night is normally televised, Bolster suggested that the committee ask the Rotary Club for a few minutes before the start of that evening's events.

School Board Chairwoman Terri Noyes favored the idea of putting together a 10- or-12-minute segment for LRPA-TV explaining the absentee ballot process, and how residents can register to vote at the polls on Election Day.

Board Vice Chair Jeff St. Cyr pointed out that any videos made for LRPA-TV would have to be the work of volunteers, since district officials cannot use the airwaves to promote whatever proposal they bring forward.

Committee member David St. Cyr suggested that school officials work in conjunction with the board of selectmen on any sort of "get out the vote" campaign, since both groups have a stake in promoting the need to vote.

"It's a town-wide problem," he said.

Superintendent Kathy Holt agreed, stating that the issue at hand is simply getting residents to the polls, whether or not they support the school's position.

"People need to vote, regardless of how they vote," she said.

Kuras explained that the Public Relations committee also talked about establishing a timeline of what needs to be done between the announcement of the district's proposal and Election Day.

As part of that process, she said, some subcommittee members suggested contacting Governor Wentworth Regional School District Superintendent Jack Robertson and asking how the Building and Maintenance Committee in his district managed to secure voter approval for the renovation and expansion of the Kingswood complex last year.

Although she had been unable to reach Robertson himself, Kuras said she had spoken with his secretary, who told her "I can already tell you what he's going to say 'Timing is everything.'"

Bringing out a proposal too soon, Kuras said, would be the "kiss of death."

Bolster commented that the timing of the Kingswood proposal was "perfect," adding that the Governor Wentworth district was able to tell voters that it would lose $8 million in state building aid if they were to turn the project down.

Commenting that the local school officials she had spoken to "have all said 'There is no secret,'" Holt advised committee members not to jump to the conclusion that what worked in Wolfeboro will work in Alton.

Kuras said the Public Relations committee also discussed the idea of holding after-school meetings with room parents and enlisting their help in keeping community members informed of any space needs proposals.

Noyes asked whether it would be possible for district officials to compile a database of e-mails by sending a form home with students asking their parents to provide e-mail addresses.

"Isn't that a kind of brainwashing, Terri?" resident Steve Parker asked from the audience, objecting to the idea of using students in any way to drum up support for the passage of a warrant article.

Noyes explained that her intent in proposing the e-mail database was not to solicit support for a ballot measure, but to keep the public informed about whatever proposal the school board decides to place on the table.

"I don't try to tell people how to vote," she said. "I try to tell them what's coming up."

Board member Lynda Goossens pointed out that school officials would have to disseminate information on both the pros and cons of the proposal.

Parker suggested that anything sent home to parents should be sent to local newspapers, as well, "so you reach everyone."

Holt replied that although she and other district officials planned to do just that, and were appreciative of the help they have received in the past from area newspapers, not everyone reads a newspaper on a daily or weekly basis, making it imperative that they explore other options, as well.

Echoing Noyes' comments, Kuras assured Parker that "we're very careful about not telling people how to vote."

Why the need for non-public?

As the committee prepared to adjourn for the evening, Parker asked why it had spent the first part of its Aug. 19 meeting in non-public session.

Quoting from the section of RSA 91-A under which committee members had voted to enter into closed session, Dame explained that their discussion had centered on "the acquisition, sale or lease of property," and that the details, if released to the public, could compromise any negotiations between district officials and the owner of the property in question.

Questioning the wisdom of surrounding the district's plans with so much secrecy, Parker asked when the information would be made public.

"We're very close to a press release," Noyes replied.

Next meeting

The Buildings and Grounds Committee's next meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 5:30 p.m. in the middle school library.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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