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Petition strikes debate at school deliberative session

February 16, 2011
The School District's operational budget wasn't the only hot topic last Thursday night, as it was followed by a discussion of a petitioned warrant article that could potentially eliminate the superintendent's position.

During the School District's deliberative session, the fourth and final item on the agenda addressed was a petitioned warrant article seeking to change the administrative unit structure of Gilford School District.

While the School Board has openly opposed the idea of this petition, the matter was discussed in length during the deliberative session and is still set to be one of the four warrant articles on the school ballot on March 8. No amendments were made to the petition.

Gilford resident Terry Stewart, a sponsor of the petition, spoke to the content during the deliberative session. He explained that the first paragraph demands that the district go back to an operational plan that was voted in favor of by taxpayers in 1998, yet never implemented by the School Board. Stewart clarified that the second paragraph notes background history only, when Gilford broke from Laconia and SAU 30 to form their own single district.

As part of this breakaway, the designated Planning Commission, the School Board, and the New Hampshire Department of Education recommended and approved of these newly proposed plans, which did not call for a superintendent position.

Stewart stated that the petitioned warrant article asked the School District to "reverse its illegal actions" and to implement these plans previously voted on by Gilford taxpayers in 1998

"In summary, this petition is directing the School Board to omit its illegal actions. This is not asking for anything new," said Stewart.

He referred to School District attorney Barbara Loughman's opinion that the petition is advisory only, and would be considered non-binding if the warrant were voted in favor of at the polls.

"It's not advisory only if votes count for anything. Why else vote or have this deliberative session?" said Stewart. "It is up to the citizens of this town to read the plan and come up with their own interpretation."

Loughman stated at the deliberative session that in her legal opinion, the article should be taken as advisory only and non-binding.

"I took a look at the plans. There is nothing there that prevents the board from forming the current plan that is in place by the School District. The state board is only interested in making sure all necessary services are provided under the SAU," said Loughman. "Nothing inhibits the School Board from hiring a superintendent. The School District is allowed to run its own SAU and the board clearly has the authority to say who will provide those services."

Stewart said that in the proposed plans, the word "superintendent" was never actually mentioned, and the plans stated that a business administrator would be needed to head the schools.

Loughman countered this by saying the plans only referred to an "administrator," and since the plans did not specify whether or not this could be a superintendent, the board still had some leeway if reading into the warrant.

Resident Joanne McNulty said she recalled when the School Board first decided to split and create an SAU of their own – to gain some equality in votes and to reduce school district costs.

Former School Board member Leo Sanfacon said he remembered the reasons for splitting from Laconia as quite different. He said Gilford was providing for more and more students and somewhat "reluctantly" decided to build their own district, inviting Gilmanton to join them.

"I cannot conceive not having a superintendent behind me when I was chair of the School Board. We talk about providing for the kids and a superintendent is a big part of that," said Sanfacon.

Richard Campbell said he could also recall when he worked on the Planning Commission which proposed the plans at the time. He helped to brainstorm different ways to function without the use of a superintendent, and also with a decreased administrator's salary.

"It was the School Board's prerogative, but I was certainly disappointed when they didn't adopt that as part of the plan," said Campbell.

Resident Dale Dormody made the point that while Campbell was disappointed with the outcome, he did acknowledge that this decision was in fact the School Board's decision in the end.

Dormody continued that the citizens of Gilford have already had their chance to vote in a different School Board with different views, yet citizens did not. He added that for the average citizen, the petition is also unclear and poorly written, referring to a situation that happened 13 years ago.

School Board Chairman Kurt Webber said that in '98, the School Board decided not to go along with plans to forego a superintendent.

"They felt it was not in the best interest of the community or the students. The current School Board feels the same way," said Webber. "There is still no district the same size of Gilford that does not have a superintendent. The three building principals already have way too much on their plates right now. This is why the board has unanimously agreed not to move ahead with this model."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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