Tensions flare over school board hopefuls
February 23, 2010
ALTON — The re-emergence of long-simmering tensions generated an uncomfortable atmosphere in the Alton Central School's music room Feb. 11, as voters confronted the four hopefuls vying for a pair of three-year seats on the school board with tough questions during the town's annual Candidates' Night.
Krista Argiropolis introduced herself as the mother of two boys who currently attend the Alton Central School and the wife of a teacher, who is "proud of his work, and proud of what he does."
As the recording secretary for the school board, the Prospect Mountain High School JMA board, and the budget committee, Argiropolis joked that she has "been in the sausage factory for almost four years," and decided to throw her own hat into the ring because "you can't be around people who are that committed without wanting to get involved yourself."
John Markland, a resident of Alton for the past five years who currently serves as Gilford's Chief of Police, said he has a grandson at Alton Central, and decided to run for the board because he was "dismayed" at the condition of the building and felt he could offer "a different perspective on how to help."
Describing himself as someone who tries to keep an open mind and listen to all sides of any given issue, Markland said his position in Gilford has also given him extensive experience with budgets and unions.
Steve Miller, who has served on the budget committee for the past seven years after retiring from the senior vice presidency of Janney Montgomery Scott (a financial services firm), described himself as a "champion of transparency," and assured the audience that if elected, he would see to it that nothing is discussed behind closed doors that does not pertain to personnel or legal matters.
Stating that his management experience has given him the ability to "recognize superior performance as well as mediocre effort," Miller said it was his recent editorial piece in local newspapers that alerted the public to what he saw as Alton Central's "sub-standard" performance on last year's NECAP exams.
He was also the only candidate with a 16-point plan for addressing the elementary school's test scores, he said, urging voters not to "settle today" for the current standards at Alton Central.
Incumbent Jeff St. Cyr said he had enjoyed his time on the board, and wanted to continue serving the citizens of Alton and finding solutions to the challenges facing both the elementary and high schools — chiefly, the development of a renovation plan for Alton Central that the board plans to present to voters next year.
Assuring the audience that there are "great things happening" at Alton Central, St. Cyr asked for their support and their confidence on Election Day.
With the floor opened to questions from the audience, cemetery trustee and school district treasurer Shirley Lane asked Miller to explain why he felt the actions of school board members, administrators, and teachers with regard to test scores constituted "the definition of stupidity" (as he stated in a recent letter to the editor).
"The bar has been set quite low," Miller replied, explaining that Alton Central's failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on last year's NECAP exam has placed it in danger of being designated by the state as a School in Need of Improvement (SINI) if the same should happen this year.
"We should not settle for that," he said, suggesting that "significant changes" need to be made in the administration and the school's faculty.
When one examines the possible factors in the lackluster test scores, he added, "it's not the building, and it's not the kids, so what else could it be?"
St. Cyr said the current board is well aware that the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) require all students nationwide to be proficient in all subjects by the year 2014, and is actively looking at ways to improve Alton's test scores.
After the frequent changes in administration over the past several years, he added, the district has actually benefited from the stability and consistency provided by its current superintendent and principal.
Commenting that she had seen a "big difference" in the goals and agendas of the elementary and high school boards with regard to test scores over the past few years, Argiropolis argued that AYP should not be the sole measurement of how well a school is doing, particularly in light of the fact that NCLB has imposed a number of unfunded mandates on small school districts —demanding that they meet certain requirements, but not offering any support to help them get there.
As a newcomer to the issues surrounding NCLB, Markland said he could not answer Lane's question directly, but could relate his personal experience with Alton Central.
His grandson, he said, attended Kindergarten in Alton, where he fared quite well, but later moved to another community where he "failed miserably."
When he returned to Alton Central, Markland said, the help offered by his teachers brought him "right back up" to where he had been before.
Addressing Miller (who she said had accused her during a recent budget committee meeting of deliberately misleading committee members by not informing them that they could place their recommendation on non-monetary Warrant articles), current school board Chair Terri Noyes questioned how he could claim not to know anything about the provisions of RSA 32:V-a — a state statute allowing municipal budget committees to place their recommendation, along with a vote tally, on any Warrant article — when he had spoken in favor of the town adopting it in 2008.
Explaining that he had recognized the statute when someone finally explained to him what it was, Miller said the budget committee had only voted on monetary items since the town's adoption of the statute because they took Noyes at her word when she informed them that there was no reason for them to vote on non-monetary articles.
"You misdirected us," he said.
Maintaining that she had never told the committee it couldn't make recommendations on non-monied articles, Noyes asked Miller where the responsibility for familiarizing itself with state law fell on the committee's shoulders, and where the school board was expected to tell the committee "what the laws are."
"I heard you say it to us more than once," Miller replied, becoming visibly upset as Noyes returned to her seat.
"You can sit there and shake your head all you want," he added in reference to her response before being cut off by moderator Mark Northridge.
Pointing out that a number of residents in both Alton and Barnstead have questioned the need for the two communities to maintain three separate school districts with three administrative staffs between them, Selectman Peter Bolster asked the candidates whether they would be willing to study the cost-effectiveness of maintaining that structure vs. joining together under a single SAU.
While she would "absolutely" support the idea from the standpoint of cost savings and continuity of services, Argiropolis said it was her understanding that the reason the first attempt at an SAU between the two towns failed was the fact that Alton ended up shouldering 70 percent of the costs due to its higher assessment.
Informing Bolster that he had often "had that same question," Markland said he would be "willing to look at anything."
Commenting that Gilford's school system seems to function well under one superintendent, Markland suggested that the presence of three superintendents with three different philosophies on education "could cause some chaos," and that the consistency provided by a single superintendent might benefit local students.
Apologizing to Noyes for his last remark to her, which he called "childish," Miller agreed that it was "silly to have two superintendents" serving one community (Alton), suggesting that consolidating those services under one office would generate a savings of $200,000 to $300,000.
Given the fact that Barnstead values local control over its school district as much as Alton does, however, Miller suggested that any attempt at re-structuring should involve a discussion with Barnstead.
St. Cyr said he was open to the concept of the two towns pooling their resources, but did not believe the savings would be as significant as Miller claimed.
From joint workshops on curriculum alignment to monthly meetings between all three superintendents, he said, efforts are currently under way to encourage collaboration among the elementary and high schools.
Stating his disagreement with a provision in the proposed Alton Central teachers' contract which calls for an increase in the maximum longevity stipend for retiring teachers from $9,000 to $12,000, Selectman and former school board member Loring Carr asked St. Cyr to explain why he voted to waive the age requirement included in a previous contract and allow a teacher to retire early in November of 2007.
Hesitant to comment on the specifics of that decision, St. Cyr explained that board members have to walk a "fine line" when it comes to personnel matters.
He added, however, that he supported longevity stipends on the grounds that they encourage continuity for students.
Re-phrasing his question, Carr asked the remaining candidates whether they felt it was appropriate for board members to waive the provisions of teachers' contracts, which are subject to approval by voters.
Reserving judgment on the example provided by Carr because she "wasn't in the board's shoes when they made that decision," Argiropolis said that while the obvious answer would be "no," extenuating circumstances may sometimes come into play.
"I have to trust that the board acted in the best interests of the students," she added.
Markland agreed with Argiropolis, suggesting that teachers and board members "might need to work things out" in the event of something like an increase in health insurance.
Miller felt that contracts should be honored to the letter, the only possible exception being a case in which a teacher came down with a fatal illness.
Resident Barbara Howard asked the candidates whether they felt that the provisions of NCLB were "too invasive," or that teachers had been forced to alter their approach in the classroom in order to prepare students for the NECAP exams.
While he felt that the requirements imposed by NCLB were invasive, Miller said he was more concerned about what he saw as the "systemic problem" demonstrated by Alton Central's failure to meet state expectations at nearly all grade levels on last year's exam.
"We live in the age of AYP," he said, adding that regardless of whether or not school officials agree with NCLB, more needs to be done to help Alton's students keep pace with the rest of the country and the rest of the world.
St. Cyr said that while the requirements of NCLB are sometimes difficult for schools to meet, students at Alton Central showed improvement in nine of the 12 categories in which they were tested on the fall 2009 NECAP exam.
Urging the audience not to place the blame for less-than-satisfactory scores squarely on the shoulders of teachers or administrators, he suggested that other factors need to be taken into account, as well.
As the parent of a student involved in Alton Central's Special Education program, Argiropolis said she had seen first-hand that the expectations NECAP procedures place on students with educational disabilities (the subgroup whose scores skewed Alton's overall results last year) are comparable to "expecting a duck to climb a tree, or a fish to run."
Schools, she said, should be evaluated on the basis of how successful their students are both academically and socially, and not solely on the basis of how well they perform on a standardized test.
Markland said the school board's Feb. 8 presentation on the fall 2009 NECAP scores had "brought up a lot of questions" for him, chief among them whether or not teachers are being forced to teach to the test.
Resident Dave St. Cyr asked the candidates what their thoughts were on the proposed joint middle school feasibility study that will go before voters in March.
"If the [Warrant] article passes, the study will take place," Jeff St. Cyr replied, adding that he did not personally support the idea of a feasibility study because recent studies have supported the value of maintaining local control over a K-8 school.
Joining forces with Barnstead on a middle school, he said, would also not address the need for renovations at Alton Central.
Argiropolis agreed, stating that although she would support the will of the voters, "we still have this building to renovate."
"Ditto," Markland said, adding that if the study were to take place, he would want it to be thorough and written in a way that would be easy for voters to understand.
"If it's good for the children, I'm all for it," he said.
Miller said he was in favor of "whatever the people decide," but had found after conducting his own research on the issue that junior high schools tend to "far out-perform K-8s."
"I see a lot of synergies" in the notion of the two towns joining together on a middle school, he added.
Miller's wife, Edie, asked the candidates whether they had any ideas for changing the proposed teachers' contract if voters reject it next month.
Argiropolis said she would be interested in seeing an exit poll asking voters why they turned down the contract if it fails.
Noting that the tax impact of the contract would be roughly 86 cents on a home assessed at $200,000, she said she did not consider that unreasonable in light of the fact that "things are picking up" with regard to the economy.
Explaining that the contract would have to re-negotiated if it does not pass, Markland suggested that teachers are "smart enough to know that we have to live with the contract … they have to live with it, too."
"It's not about us vs. them," he added, stressing the importance of working together.
Stating that the key issue, from his perspective, was "accountability," Miller said he did not agree with the idea of rewarding teachers for their students' failure to meet state expectations by offering them salary increases.
Commenting that he felt there were "a lot of hidden costs" in the proposed contract, Miller said he also considered it to be out of touch with the current economic situation in surrounding communities, where schools like Inter-Lakes and Barnstead Elementary have been forced to cut teaching positions.
Stating his belief that it is ultimately "up to the citizens" to decide whether or not to approve the contract, St. Cyr assured the audience that there were no hidden costs, adding that the district's proposed operating budget had dropped four percent.
The requested appropriations on this year's district Warrant, he said, are also down $200,000 from last year.
Addressing Miller's claim in a recent letter to the editor that teachers should be expected to do more than "just show up" and collect a paycheck, fifth grade teacher Derek Pappaceno asked Miller and the other candidates whether they had "shown up" to see what is currently happening in local schools.
Miller said he had visited both Alton Central and Prospect Mountain a number of times, and had taken the opportunity to ask administrators about the goings-on in every department.
St. Cyr said he had spent a good deal of time in both buildings as a student, and assured the audience that he and his fellow board members were "very well aware of what's happening."
"Boy, it really rubs me the wrong way when people say that teachers 'just show up,'" Argiropolis said, arguing that teachers deserve respect for inspiring their students, preparing them for future careers, and helping to shape them into the people they will one day become.
Markland said he has had "limited visits" to Alton Central, but recently took a guided tour of Prospect Mountain with the high school superintendent, and was impressed with what he saw.
"You talk to the workers to get a clear picture" of what's happening inside any company or public institution, he added.
Re-phrasing his question, which he felt Miller had misunderstood, Pappaceno asked Miller whether he had taken the time to watch first-hand what teachers are doing in their classrooms.
Miller said he had observed teachers on the job at Prospect Mountain, and was impressed, but felt that Alton Central's NECAP scores spoke for themselves.
"I'm not satisfied with the end result, and neither should you be," he said, addressing Pappaceno.
Questioning the decision of school board members to serve in a rotating capacity as the district's representative to the budget committee, Carr's wife, Felice, asked the candidates whether they would be willing and able to commit the time necessary to attend committee meetings, and whether they would support a "policy of rotation."
Explaining that he has an extensive background with Gilford's budget committee, which has one designated school board representative, Markland said he would try to keep an open mind about the notion of a rotating representative, suggesting that an "unhappy" representative who was forced to serve against his or her will might do more harm than good.
Miller said his problem with the idea of a rotating representative was the inconvenience it causes when the budget committee spends hours at a time discussing a proposed cut, and returns the following evening to vote on the matter only to be greeted by a different school board representative who has no idea what they are about to vote on.
St. Cyr explained that the board had wanted to designate a single representative to the budget committee, but was forced to adopt the rotating schedule when no one stepped forward to volunteer for the position.
Noyes did, however, serve as the board's representative throughout the committee's review of the school district budget, he said, adding that as a board member, college student, and state representative, he felt he had demonstrated his ability to effectively manage his time.
As someone who already juggles a hectic meeting schedule in her capacity as a recorder, Argiropolis said she would have "no problem" with the time commitment involved in being a board member.
She was skeptical about the idea of a rotating representative, however, stating that in her opinion, it had not been a benefit to the community.
Voicing her belief that NECAP scores "do not define our school," resident Dawn Wallace, who said she had recently met with Alton Central's principal and other staff members to discuss strategies for improving test scores, asked the candidates whether they had taken the time to do the same.
Miller said he had met with Superintendent Kathy Holt for nearly three hours following the publication of his first editorial, and thought the only "substantive" solution she had come up with was the development of a common rubric for Reading.
Not satisfied with Miller's answer, Wallace confronted him after the remaining candidates had responded, stating that her question to him had been whether or not he had met with the principal and staff on the ground at Alton Central — not the superintendent.
Miller said he had interacted with Principal Bonnie Jean Kuras, Director of Technology Pam McLeod, and Business Manager Kathy O'Blenes, and came away unimpressed.
"This is about the kids," he said. "It's about 'where do you want the kids to be?'"
Resident and former school board member Cydney Johnson questioned Miller's sincerity, holding up a copy of the flyer outlining his 16-point plan for addressing Alton Central's NECAP scores as she stepped to the microphone.
"When you printed this flyer, you made it about the teachers and the administration," she said, objecting to Miller's negative portrayal of the administration and faculty, and asking the candidates how they would work to improve test scores without adopting his "adversarial" approach.
Markland said he has managed to form a strong working relationship with Gilford's budget committee, and would extend a friendly hand to town officials in Alton, as well.
"We'll work together to get the job done," he said.
Miller maintained his position that "it is about the kids."
The problems Alton's students have, however, "are not their own," he said, re-iterating that nearly every grade level at Alton Central has failed to meet state expectations.
His flyer, he said, contains "16 suggestions we can do immediately" to address that issue.
"At least I'm trying," he added.
Voicing his hope that new Writing and Reading programs at Alton Central would help to improve test scores, St. Cyr said he would continue to address issues with the building itself, and would encourage the board to work more with the community.
Describing herself as a firm believer in positive reinforcement, Argiropolis said she would "rather dangle a carrot" to get results than threaten teachers and administrators with termination, and hoped she could bring that attitude to the board.
The board, she added, needs to take public comments into account and "remember who our voters are."
"You say you'd rather dangle a carrot? Well, that's my tax dollar you're dangling," Howard said in response to Argiropolis' comments.
Pointing out that Argiropolis has two sons at Alton Central; that Markland's grandson also attends the elementary school; and that St. Cyr's mother works as a guidance counselor at Prospect Mountain, Howard voiced her concern that none of the candidates, with the exception of Miller, seemed to her to genuinely support the interests of local taxpayers.
"What will be your role in representing the taxpayers?" she asked. "Where is the taxpayers' representation?"
Clarifying, for the record, that he currently has a son at Prospect Mountain, Miller said he would take his responsibility to the voters who elected him seriously, and would closely scrutinize any request going forward to the budget committee or the public.
Informing Howard that he has recused himself from any discussions at the high school regarding his mother's position, St. Cyr said his parents also pay taxes in Alton.
In such a small town, he added, it is virtually impossible for public officials to avoid running into a conflict of interest at some point.
"Being a parent doesn't mean I have a conflict of interest," Argiropolis said, stating her belief that more community members should get involved in the political process.
As a fiscal conservative and a taxpayer herself, she said she would ensure that all budget requests are "well-justified."
Markland said he was not advocating for any particular issue.
"All I'm saying is, I'm open-minded," he said. "I want to give everybody a fair shot."
Voters will have the final say on who joins (or re-joins) the school board when they go to the polls on Tuesday, March 9.
Editor's note: Candidates' Night can currently be seen in its entirety on LRPA-TV's Channel 26. Check Channel 24 at the top of each hour for listings.
Copies are also available on both VHS and DVD at the Gilman Library.
Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or firstname.lastname@example.org