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Deliberative session brings lively debate

Teachers' contract, feasibility study spark debate at Alton School District deliberative session

February 03, 2010
ALTON — Voters turned out in force to voice their support for teachers and their misgivings about a proposed joint middle school feasibility study during the Alton School District's Jan. 30 deliberative session on its 2010 Warrant.

With 102 residents in attendance out of a total of 4,024 registered voters (more than double last year's audience), Saturday's four-and-a-half-hour deliberative session (which offered voters a final opportunity to discuss and amend this year's list of Warrant articles before heading to the polls in March) was marked by intense debate over a proposed three-year teacher's contract at the Alton Central School and a pair of petitioned articles aimed at launching a study into the possibility of a joint middle school with Barnstead and giving the high school's joint budget committee the final say on Prospect Mountain High School's operating budget.

Article VI on this year's Warrant asks voters to approve the terms of a three-year collective bargaining agreement between district officials and the Alton Teachers' Association (ATA), and to raise and appropriate $85,942 to cover increases in salaries and benefits during the first year (2010-11).

Presenting an overview of the proposed contract, which calls for a total increase of $334,282 in teacher salaries and benefits over the next three years (the equivalent of a one percent cost of living allowance, or COLA, during the second year and a two percent COLA the third year, along with step-and-track increases), school board Chairwoman Terri Noyes said both sides had been mindful of the recession during negotiations, and urged voters to support the contract.

Speaking on behalf of the budget committee, which is not recommending passage of Article VI, Steve Miller said he and his colleagues felt that the current economic times were "not right" for what the ATA had requested, and that the proposed salary increases were out of touch with the economic climate, which has forced surrounding districts to consider massive layoffs.

Questioning a provision in the contract that he said would take the authority to determine layoffs out of administrators' hands by implementing a new formula based on the concept of "last one in, first one out," Miller suggested that the new seniority-based formula would take away accountability.

Stating that the only concession he had seen the ATA make was an increase of half a percent in health insurance co-pays, Miller also objected to a provision in the contract that would obligate the district to pay teachers on sabbatical the equivalent of half the base salary for a Step I position and cover 100 percent of their benefits.

Reiterating the NECAP statistics he listed for Alton Central in a recent editorial piece, Miller said the budget committee also felt that it was inappropriate to reward Alton Central's faculty for not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on last year's exam.

Resident Danielle Mostoller read a statement of support for teachers signed by a number of local parents (see the statement on page A4.)

Pointing out that ATA members had, by their own admission, taken positions in Alton of their own free will and remained there because of their love for teaching and their dedication to local students, resident Barbara Howard questioned whether they truly had the children's best interests at heart when negotiating the proposed contract, which she said was "feeling like an entitlement" to her.

Calling the contract an "unsustainable plan" given the condition of the local economy, Howard assured the audience that despite the tendency of school supporters to "demonize" the taxpayers who question what they see as excessive spending in the name of education, she and other residents who have voiced doubts about the contract do not have an agenda against the district or the ATA.

"It's dollars and cents," she said, explaining that she felt the teachers at Alton Central "do a great job," and was opposed to the contract on purely financial grounds.

"It's about what's right in this economy," she added.

Stating his belief that it is the responsibility of every community to provide for its most vulnerable residents (the elderly, the disabled, and children), Selectman Peter Bolster urged voters to "honor" the teachers who strive to give Alton's children a quality education by passing the contract.

Commenting that the ATA had agreed to no more than a two percent cost of living allowance over the next three years, when the actual cost of living is likely to rise by as much as four or five percent, Bolster said he was "amazed" by how reasonable the proposed Master Agreement seemed to him when he first read it.

"This is the best contract I've ever seen a teachers' union negotiate," he said.

Addressing Miller's comments about the school's AYP status, Bolster urged the audience to bear in mind that "one test does not indicate the value of the instruction" students are receiving at Alton Central.

"I don't think any of us would want to be judged on our effectiveness as parents by how well our kids did on their SATs," he added.

While she personally felt that "we have a good school," budget committee Chairwoman Karen Painter said she had voted against the contract because she did not consider it fair for either teachers (who she felt were deserving of a higher COLA than one or two percent if the economy improves) or taxpayers to be tied down to the terms of a three-year bargaining agreement in the midst of a recession.

"I think it's appropriate to hold the line" until the economy starts to turn around, she said.

Voicing her concern that failure of the proposed contract would inhibit the ability of school administrators to attract "quality staff" to Alton Central and retain teachers who might look elsewhere for better opportunities, resident Carol Locke advised the audience that the culture and climate within a school can also have an effect on test scores.

"That sounds like blackmail," Howard said in response, suggesting that it would be unfair for anyone to use local students as leverage in pushing for passage of the contract.

Explaining that his reasons for voting against the contract were "purely financial," budget committee Vice Chair Greg Fuller said he could not, in good conscience, have voted in favor of an agreement that called for a 0.5 percent increase in teacher health insurance premiums when town employees have been asked to accept a substantial increase in their insurance costs.

"Money isn't growing on trees, folks," he added, explaining that with employees in the private sector losing jobs or being forced to take salary cuts due to the recession, he felt that the increases requested by teachers were "too much money in this year."

Noyes concluded debate on Article VI by reading a quote from a former school board member who she said acted as a mentor to her when she first joined the board.

"Money does not make a good teacher," she said. "It merely decides where the good teachers go."

Changes made to feasibility study proposal

Article XVIII (a petitioned article asking voters to establish an exploratory committee at Prospect Mountain consisting of two school board members from each town, one budget committee member from each town, and one resident of each town for the purpose of investigating the feasibility of a joint middle school) ignited an hour-long debate due to the school board's decision last week to add a note to the article stating that its Buildings and Grounds Committee voted on Nov. 4 not to recommend a feasibility study.

Voicing his concern that Article XVIII was never presented to the budget committee for comment, Loring Carr (the selectmen's representative to the committee) demanded to know how the school board had the legal authority to add the vote of an un-elected committee to a petitioned article.

"I don't think the petitioners had that in there," he said, questioning whether the school board's decision meant that any official committee, whether elected or appointed, would now have the right to comment on Warrant articles.

Admitting that if she had been approached with the idea, she might have said, "I don't know if you can do that," school board counsel Barbara Loughman explained that whether or not the board acted legally, the notation referencing the Buildings and Grounds Committee's vote was now a part of the article.

It would be up to the voting body, she said, to remove it or approve the article as written.

Questioning a sentence within the article stating that it would be a "zero cost" measure, resident and Buildings and Grounds Committee member Thad Guldbrandsen suggested that it would be all but impossible for the study committee to collect information without the assistance of school staff or resources, and proposed an amendment aimed at removing the phrase "This is a zero-cost article."

With Guldbrandsen's amendment passing, Carr came forward with an amendment to strike the notation referencing the Buildings and Grounds Committee's vote.

Budget committee member Virgil MacDonald voiced his support for Carr's amendment, suggesting that the school board was "trying to persuade votes" by affixing the Buildings and Grounds Committee's recommendation to the article.

Guldbrandsen clarified, for the benefit of the audience, that the committee's vote preceded the article.

When the feasibility study was first proposed by members of the high school board, he said, the committee, which had already voted to recommend that the school board pursue a renovation and expansion of Alton Central, felt that it would have been "disruptive" to that process.

Commenting that Buildings and Grounds Committee members had put four years of work into developing a plan for solving the space issues at Alton Central, resident Shelby Hicks (who also voiced concerns about the proposed make-up of the study committee) said she found it counter-productive for the community to consider negating their efforts by looking into a joint middle school (an idea the Buildings and Grounds Committee had already discussed and rejected).

Stating that she had been asked by the petitioners to speak in favor of Article XVIII, resident Cydney Johnson said Hicks' comments reflected the concerns of voters who signed the petition, many of whom were not necessarily in favor of a joint middle school, but felt that all available options should be explored.

Assuring the audience that the article was not designed to "insult or belittle" the Buildings and Grounds Committee's efforts, Johnson noted that the townspeople had not formally voted on the committee's recommendation (which she said was the result of a discussion among only five of its members).

"That piece of language doesn't represent the full voting of this town," she said.

Hicks commented that the committee had repeatedly asked for more public participation, without success.

When Carr's amendment failed, school board Vice Chair Jeff St. Cyr proposed a third amendment, adding language to the article stipulating that the study committee is to bring a recommendation forward to the local school boards no later than July 1, 2010.

With the Buildings and Grounds Committee planning to bring a renovation proposal forward on next year's ballot, and 2011 the last year that the district would be able to put interest from the Prospect Mountain bond toward the renovations, he said, a deadline of July 1 would give the board ample time to decide on the best option for the district.

St. Cyr's amendment passed.

With St. Cyr preparing to bring another amendment forward just as an audience member moved to restrict re-consideration of Article XVIII, the motion failed, enabling St. Cyr to suggest that further language be added to the article stipulating that the school board members are to be appointed by their respective local boards; that the budget committee members are to be appointed by their colleagues as well; and that the at-large citizen members of the study committee are to be appointed by the Alton and Barnstead school district moderators.

The amendment passed.

"100 percent transparency"

Explaining the budget committee's rationale in bringing forward Article XIX (which asked voters to "leave the wording of the [Prospect Mountain] Joint Maintenance Agreement between Alton and Barnstead in place as originally adopted by the voters of each community" by granting the joint high school budget committee the same authority and oversight as a municipal budget committee), Miller said the committee's intent was to provide voters with "100 percent transparency."

Currently, he said, Prospect Mountain's entire operating budget appears as a single line item in the Alton School District's annual budget.

"You know more about what's in the summer school budget for the Alton Central School" than about what's in Prospect Mountain's budget, he said, adding that if Article XIX, as originally worded, were to pass, the budget committee would be able to present voters with a "complete operational breakdown" for the high school.

Commenting that she had not been able to find the passage cited in Article XIX ("The Joint Board shall develop and adopt a budget and present it to the budget committee, which shall have the same functions in the preparation of the budget as a municipal budget committee adopted under RSA Chapter 32") in any of the official documents pertaining to the adoption of the joint maintenance agreement, Noyes proposed an amendment removing the passage completely, with the article instead reading "Shall the voters of the Alton School District vote to leave the wording of the Joint Maintenance Agreement between Alton and Barnstead in place as originally adopted by the voters of each community on December 19, 2001?"

Questioning whether Noyes' amendment would change the intent of the article, Painter asked why the school board appeared, to her, to be "against transparency."

"Why would you take away the voters' rights by limiting the amount of information they have access to?" she asked.

Noyes argued that there is transparency in the process now in the form of joint budget committee work sessions and public hearings, which are posted and widely publicized in the local press.

"I don't think that we're hiding anything," she said to a burst of applause from the audience.

Hicks echoed Noyes' belief that the public hearing process encourages transparency, adding that she felt the function of the joint budget committee was "very well understood" by voters when the joint maintenance agreement was ratified.

Miller argued that there are no "checks and balances" under the current system to ensure that money is not taken away from elementary school programs in order to fund Alton's share of the Prospect Mountain budget, which he described as a "contractual obligation."

Noyes pointed out, however, that the high school board has always gone along with the joint budget committee's recommended bottom line, and reiterated her belief that the public hearing process ensures sufficient transparency.

Noyes' amendment passed by an overwhelming margin.

The rest of the Warrant

No changes were made to the remaining articles on this year's school district Warrant, which include:

Article I, the election of district officers.

Article II, which asks voters to affix the salaries of district officers as follows:

-Moderator -- $200 per meeting;

-Clerk -- $200 per meeting;

-Treasurer -- $2,000;

-School board Chair -- $2,100;

-School board members -- $2,000.

Article III, which asks voters to raise and appropriate an operating budget for both Alton Central and Prospect Mountain (not including any separate appropriations) in the amount of $12,898,877, with the default budget set at $12,910,099 in the event that voters reject the recommended bottom line.

Article IV, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $150,000 to be added to the existing Buildings and Grounds Expendable Trust Fund for the purpose of building, repairing, and maintaining school facilities.

Article V, which asks voters to establish a new contingency fund for the purpose of covering unanticipated utility expenses during the 2010-11 school year, and to raise and appropriate $60,000 to be placed in the fund.

Article VII, which asks voters to authorize the school board to hold a special district meeting for the purpose of bringing forward a re-negotiated agreement in the event that voters reject the Alton Central teachers' contract.

Article VIII, which asks voters to authorize the school board to place up to $50,000 of the FY11 unreserved fund balance into the Buildings and Grounds Expendable Trust Fund.

Article IX, which asks voters to discontinue the long-dormant School Building Maintenance Expendable Trust Fund.

Article X, which asks voters to discontinue the dormant Roof Capital Reserve Fund.

Article XI, which asks voters to approve the terms of a new two-year collective bargaining agreement with the Prospect Mountain Teachers' Association, and to raise and appropriate $33,137.47 to cover Alton's share of increased salaries and benefits during the first year.

Article XII, which asks voters to authorize the school board to bring forward a renegotiated contract at a special district meeting in the event that Article XI fails.

Article XIII, which asks voters to establish a new reserve fund for the purpose of covering the cost of professional development classes for teachers (a contractual obligation), and to set aside $10,000 from the FY11 unreserved fund balance to be placed in the new fund.

Article XIV, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $33,566.03 (Alton's share of one percent of the high school's general fund) to be placed in a contingency fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated utility expenses at the high school during the 2010-11 school year.

Article XV, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $20,000 to be added to the existing Prospect Mountain High School General Maintenance Fund for the purpose of covering any unanticipated maintenance expenses during the 2010-11 school year.

Article XVI, which asks voters to raise and appropriate $6,250, Alton's share of the cost to install new security cameras on the back side of the high school and a new anti-theft security system in the high school library.

Article XVII, which asks voters to set aside $1,750 of the FY11 unreserved fund balance to cover Alton's share of the cost for a wind turbine feasibility study at the high school.

Voters will have the final say on all Warrant articles when they head to the polls on Tuesday, March 9.

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

Martin Lord Osman
Brewster Academy
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