Cooperative school committee debated at public hearing
February 24, 2011GROVETON — Only a handful of Groveton residents attended the public hearing on the school budget held last week at the Groveton High library. School board members, SAU representatives and town budget committee members assembled to review the draft of the upcoming warrant articles to be considered by the voters of Northumberland at Town Meeting which will be held at 7 p.m. at Ryan Memorial Gym on Tuesday, March 15.
The budget committee and the school board discussed each warrant article and voted to "Recommend" or "Not Recommend" each. The warrant articles will be brought to the voters with the endorsement — or lack of endorsement — as rendered by both the school board and the budget committee.
The hot topic for the evening was discussion that revolved around the proposed creation of a "cooperative school district planning committee." There was some discussion about the "cooperative school" idea in general. It was nearly unanimous that the cooperative school idea carried many benefits for all of the towns/schools/students involved.
School board members, Ron Caron and Nancy Merrow were sharply at odds with the other two board members, Dave Auger and Sally Pelletier, regarding the merits of this proposed committee. The committee would consist of three representatives each from Groveton, Stark and Stratford.
The crux of the conflict between the board members was two-fold; first, Groveton would be paying $3,000 of the $5,000 total cost to establish and fund the committee's fiscal needs. Startford would pay $1,200 and Stark would pay $800. Each town's share is based on their portion of the total enrollment in the suggested cooperative school.
Caron said he was concerned that the cost sharing did not mirror the power sharing. "We are paying 60-percent of the cost but we only have 33-percent of the say in the decision-making process," he said. "We have seen this in the past where decisions affecting Groveton were being made by Stratford and Stark, not by Groveton, because of the 'three-equal-votes' system." His feelings were echoed by Merrow.
Auger made a plea to try to look past the perceived inequity in the voting structure of the committee and focus on the benefits to all three towns, Groveton in particular, to supporting the idea of a cooperative school in town. "The other towns have already voted in favor of this new committee, so they have shown a genuine interest in possibly sending their students to a coop school here. We're sending them a message that doesn't reflect our true desire to move forward with the idea of forming a cooperative school district."
Pelletier asserted that the reservations and anxiety, shown by some of the board members, with getting involved as part of this committee, pale when compared to the potential benefits to the town, the school and to the taxpayers.
Town resident, John Roberge, echoed Auger's feelings, saying "What kind of message are we sending to the other towns about the "cooperative school" idea if our own school board doesn't show unanimous support for it." Both the board and committee voted, initially, to "not recommend" this article.
Auger questioned whether the budget committee really understood what they were voting on and asked them to rescind their vote and further discuss the issue. He also hoped the board would reconsider their vote. Auger asked Caron and Merrow to explain the basis for their "no" votes. Caron reiterated his feelings about the inequitable voting capacity Groveton would have on the committee. Merrow said she felt that Groveton should not be paying more than the other towns if the other towns get just as much say as Groveton does.
Both the board and the budget committee agreed to rescind their initial votes and revote on this article. The board held fast with another 2-2 split "not recommended" but the budget committee vote ended up "recommending" it 4-0 with 2 abstaining.
The evening's discussion started with the cost items of the collective bargaining agreement between the Groveton Teachers Association and the Northumberland School Board. The question reflects increases in salaries and benefits of $34, 065 for 2011-2012 and an additional $47,656 for 2012-2013. Dan Shallow, SAU 58 superintendent, explained that the teachers agreed to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premium and settled for a policy that carries a higher deductible (there was previously no deductible on their previous policy).
The cost for the insurance benefit package that the teachers receive is scaled, based on the teacher's marital/family status. A single teacher's policy costs $7,123/year; for a family of two it costs $14,239/year; for a family of three or more it costs $19,481/year. The members of the school board seemed satisfied with the concessions that were made by the teachers, commenting that it reflects about a $20,000 savings to the school budget. They felt that as long as the "Evergreen Clause" is still in effect, there is a risk that it could cost significantly more.
The Evergreen Clause is a section of the state's RSA that makes any existing collective bargaining agreement carry over to the next year if a new contract deal is not struck by the contract negotiation deadline. While that law has since been repealed, the clause still applies since the contract was negotiated while the law was in effect. The board unanimously "recommended" this warrant article 4-0. The budget committee also "recommended" the article 4-1 (one abstention).
The next warrant article asks to raise and appropriate the sum of $5,738,842 to cover the total , comprehensive school budget for the 2011-2012 school year. The board "recommended" this article 4-0. The budget committee also "recommended" this article 5-1.
One other article, although not requiring a vote at the hearing, requests the town enter into an agreement to give GREAT first right of refusal, in the event of a purchase/sale option, on the property owned on the Brown Road.