Residents confront board over stipend issue
Concerns raised about longevity stipends paid from 2004 to 2007
December 16, 2009
ALTON — Residents' frustration with what they saw as an attempt by the Alton School Board to stonewall their investigation into how teachers received more than $94,000 in overpaid longevity stipends between 2004 and 2007 flared into a heated confrontation Monday night.
Resident Steve Parker approached the board during the first of two public input sessions during its Dec. 14 meeting to question how language in the Alton Teachers' Association contract for 2004-2007, which stated that teachers with a minimum of 15 years of experience and 10 years of service to the Alton School District would receive an annual longevity stipend of $500, was somehow misinterpreted, resulting in the stipends being paid out cumulatively.
Due to the misinterpretation, Parker explained, 17 teachers (six of whom later retired) who were originally slated to receive a flat stipend of $500 each year were paid $500 the first year, $1,000 the second year, and $1,500 the third year.
During a meeting with Superintendent Kathy Holt and school board members Terri Noyes and Lynda Goossens on Dec. 7, Parker said he (along with residents Peter Keen and Barbara and Ray Howard) asked how the stipends had become cumulative when there was no indication in the 2004 contract that they were meant to be paid out cumulatively.
Holt, he said, replied that that was how the teachers' union had interpreted the language written into that portion of the contract.
"This interpretation of the contract language by the Alton teacher union cost the taxpayers of Alton $94,400 in the 2004-2007 Master Agreement, and $62,500 in the 2007-2010 Master Agreement [when the teachers receiving longevity stipends were offered a buy-out]," he said.
As he was leaving the SAU office on Dec. 7, he said, Holt, Noyes, and Goossens asked him to "let my conscience decide if I am doing the right thing by giving this information to the people of Alton."
"Maybe what should have been asked was, 'Where was the Alton teacher union's conscience when they received all that extra money?'" he added.
For the sake of clarification, Holt said she had never attributed the misinterpretation of the contract to the Teachers' Association.
Her exact words during the Dec. 7 meeting, she explained, were "That's how the language was interpreted."
The misinterpretation was made by district officials, as well as union members, she said, adding that both sides recognized the error when the contract was re-negotiated in 2007, and rectified the problem with the buy-out.
Noyes also objected to Parker's comments about what was said during the Dec. 7 meeting, insisting that neither she nor Goossens had asked him to examine his conscience.
Parker said, however, that he was not satisfied with Holt's explanation of how the stipends became cumulative.
"How can [the 2004 contract] be interpreted that way?" he asked.
Holt, who said she was hired after the current contract was negotiated, and had no idea how the misinterpretation came about, pointed out that the stipends had been removed from the 2007-10 contract and replaced with the buy-out, making them a non-issue at this point.
Questioning Parker's reasons for wanting to re-visit the issue, which was covered extensively in the local press when it originally came to light in early 2007, board Vice Chair Jeff St. Cyr commented that "we can't go back."
Parker asked whether it would be possible for the board to give him the names of union members, either past or present, who might have been responsible for misinterpreting the contract.
Holt explained that the stipends would never have been paid out without the knowledge and consent of the superintendent's office and the school board.
"It would have taken at least three groups," she said, re-iterating that "[the contract] was changed, and it's done."
St. Cyr noted that voters approved the buy-out along with the rest of the current contract.
Stating that he was still not satisfied with the answers offered by Holt and the board, Parker said he wanted a detailed explanation of how the misinterpretation came about.
"I think this was a bad deal for the taxpayers," he said.
Keen suggested that the cumulative stipends could be misconstrued by some as a misappropriation of tax funds, given the uncertainty regarding how the contract was misinterpreted in the first place.
Warrant articles approved
With the town budget committee preparing to complete its review of the district's proposed FY11 operating budget within the next few weeks, Holt presented the board Monday night with a list of Warrant articles for its approval.
The articles approved the board include:
-Article I — the election of district officers;
-Article II — asking voters to approve the salaries of board members and the district's moderator, clerk, and treasurer (which St. Cyr said will be the same as last year);
-Article III — asking voters to raise and appropriate the proposed operating budget;
-Article IV — asking voters to raise and appropriate $150,000 to be placed in the Buildings and Grounds Expendable Trust Fund;
-Article V — asking voters to raise and appropriate $60,000 to be placed in an expendable trust fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated utility expenses during the 2011-12 school year;
-Article VI — asking voters to approve a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Teachers' Association, and to raise and appropriate the cost increases associated with the agreement (which amount to $85,942 during the 2010-11 school year, $109,426 during the 2011-12 school year, and $138,914 during the 2012-13 school year);
-Article VII — asking voters to authorize district officials to hold a special district meeting in the event that the contract fails;
-Article VIII — asking voters to grant the school board the authority to place up to $50,000 of the district's end-of-year fund balance into the Buildings and Grounds Expendable Trust Fund;
-Article IX — asking voters to discontinue a capital reserve fund for building maintenance, which is currently empty;
-Article X — asking voters to discontinue a capital reserve fund for roof repairs, which is currently empty;
-Article XI — asking voters to approve a new two-year collective bargaining agreement with the Prospect Mountain High School teacher's union, and to raise and appropriate the cost increases associated with the agreement ($70,543 during the 2010-11 school year and $114,675 during the 2011-12 school year);
-Article XII — asking voters to authorize a special district meeting in the event that Article XI fails at the polls;
-Article XIII — asking voters to establish a new capital reserve fund at the high school to cover any overruns in the Improvement of Instruction account (which compensates teachers for professional development classes), and to place $10,000 from the high school's end-of-year fund balance into the new fund;
-Article XIV — asking voters to raise and appropriate $33,364.70 to be placed in the high school's Economic Uncertainty Fund for the purpose of covering unanticipated utility expenses during the 2011-12 school year;
-Article XV — asking voters to add $20,000 to the high school's General Maintenance Fund;
-Article XVI — asking voters to raise and appropriate $6,250, Alton's share of the cost to purchase new security cameras and an anti-theft alarm system for the high school library;
-Article XVIII — the reports of any committees or organizations that wish to be heard during the deliberative session.
The board chose to postpone action on Article XVII (which asks voters to raise and appropriate $1,750 toward a wind turbine feasibility study) due to the feeling among some board members that the cost of the study should come from the high school's fund balance.
A proposed high school Warrant article asking voters in Alton and Barnstead to form an exploratory committee to study the feasibility of a joint middle school sparked a heated debate among board members, with member Sandy Wyatt questioning why the proposal was being made at the high school level.
Board member Maureen Smith agreed that the proposal should have come from the sending towns, and not from the high school board.
Stating that he felt it was important for the board to move forward with the recommendation of its Buildings and Grounds Committee (to pursue renovations to the Alton Central School, and maintain local control over its own K-8 school), St. Cyr said he planned to request a "one board, one vote" decision on the proposed article during the high school board's Dec. 15 meeting.
"Why do you do that?" Goossens asked, adding that she felt assumptions had been made prematurely about matters such as the joint middle school's possible location.
The purpose of a feasibility study, she said, would be to explore all possible options.
St. Cyr argued, however, that the majority of the board disagreed with the proposal.
"Aren't we taking away the vote of the people?" Goossens asked, suggesting that the proposal should be presented to voters in both towns, and not rejected out of hand.
Arguing that board members are elected to make decisions that they feel represent the will of the voters, Noyes compared the situation to living with someone who wants to purchase a big-screen television set when you don't agree with the idea.
"If I don't want a 52-inch TV, I'm not going to go looking for a 52-inch TV," she said. "I'm not going to go look at something I don't believe in."
With Goossens continuing to argue that the final decision should be given to voters, Noyes replied that, "you can't put every option on a ballot."
"I think we're taking their vote away," Goossens said, adding that she felt the board had no place making assumptions about what a feasibility study would bring out without knowing for certain.
"I'd like to hear what the people want," she added, stating that she had doubts about whether the "very select few" Buildings and Grounds Committee members who rejected the proposal represented the majority of Alton's residents.
Odds and ends
In other business, the board approved the withdrawal of $2,650 from the Security/Safety Expendable Trust Fund for the installation of a new window in the Speech and Language room (which is currently windowless, leaving students with no secondary exit in the event of an emergency).
The board also signed a manifest for the month of November in the amount of $550,000; heard the latest enrollment figures for the Alton Central School (590 students as of Dec. 1); scheduled the district's deliberative session for Saturday, Jan. 30, at 1 p.m. in the Prospect Mountain High School auditorium (with a snow date of Feb. 6); approved the New Hampshire School Board Association's list of recommended resolutions for 2010; and approved a new policy enabling district officials to record high school-level courses on the transcripts of middle school students.
The board's next meeting has been scheduled for Monday, Jan. 11, at 6 p.m. in the middle school library.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org