Category Archives: Taxes

NH School Boards Association: not working for you

When your tax dollars work against your interests, something is wrong.

I attended the New Hampshire School Boards Association “Annual New School Board Orientation and Board Chair Workshops” on May 3, 2016. Since I am not a new board member, I asked to attend the board chair workshop and was kindly given leave to do so. This fried Timberlane’s chairman Peter Bealo who said during the workshop that he would not comment because I was present.  Mr. Bealo’s comment wasn’t the only objectionable takeaway from the instruction/discussion that night.

The workshop was broken into three parts.

PART ONE: “Conducting Effective School Board Meetings,”  a lecture by their resident lawyer, Barrett Christina, who is also NHSBA’s Deputy Executive Director. He suggested a number of things which are intended to serve boards very well, but which I heartily believe are not in the best interest of the public:

  1. Establish a consent agenda for “routine matters, such as minutes and monthly expenses, which can be approved together without discussion.”  I wish our board got monthly expense reports!  Your board, however, has no interest in “micromanaging” the affairs of the SAU so they don’t want to see any numbers ever, but you can be sure if we were given monthly expense reports that they would be worth a comment or two – and even a question to the Business Administrator. As for our minutes, these have often taken the form of political whitewashes for what actually transpires in our meetings. Not infrequently in the past, my vote has been mistakenly recorded.

A consent agenda works for legislation at the State House.  It does not work at the board level where everything should be open for comment and question. Why else is it being given to us for a vote?

Peter Bealo complained in the workshop that it takes his board forever to get through minutes.  He didn’t add that our minutes in the past have been riddled with issues. My objections to the inaccuracies and whitewashes in our minutes past has become an embarrassment to the board.  The correct response is to improve the minutes, which I’m happy to say have considerably improved of late.

2. Mr. Christina advocates that minutes should be nothing more than a record of the action taken by the board and need include no more than what is set out by statute – those present, time and place, motions and brief summary of discussion. He emphasized “brief.”  Following this advice would make our main minutes as skeletal as our non-public minutes.  This does not serve the public’s interest and is a prime example of how the NHSBA is advising school board chairman and school board members generally to put their interests above the interests of the public they have been elected to serve.

Attorney Christina’s advice on minutes should have been

  • don’t make your minutes political in any way
  • accurately and fairly capture public comment
  • fairly set out the reasons for votes both in support and against all motions
  • correctly record everyone’s vote

Please understand that I’m not criticizing the work of any employee in my comments because I know that what is expected in these minutes comes from higher authorities than the minute writer – and that is the issue here.

3. Mr. Christina also emphasized that “New Business” should not have any surprises. Currently New Business is the only place on the agenda where TRSB members can bring up issues.  Our opportunity to get issues included on the agenda is minuscule. All three of my motions to add things to future agendas were soundly rejected by the board at the April 21 meeting. TRSB also voted down discussing a registered letter we received with serious concerns about our Articles of Agreement.  Mr. Christina’s advice, in my opinion, erects another impediment to elected officials in conducting their representation.

4. Mr. Christina also said that policies should be ready for board approval when they come out of policy committee and that really there should be no need for multiple readings. Yes, this is what our board would like, too, so no one really has to think about their primary function and just entrust it to a few on the policy committee who are outnumbered by administration – if they should ever again have a difference of opinion now that I have been removed from the policy committee.

In fairness, a few good  suggestions did come out of the discussion.

  • Mr. Christina suggested that subcommittee minutes should be included in agenda packets.  TRSB as a whole never sees committee minutes.  Oddly enough, I motioned at the April 21th school board meeting to have all standing committee draft minutes emailed to the board when they are prepared.  TRSB  voted this down.
  • A chairman in the audience said that her board has an agenda heading; “Agenda items for next meeting.”  (Someone probably took this chairman aside and browbeat some sense into her later.)
  • Someone else in the audience suggested  a “two-week rule” whereby something introduced to the board in one meeting can be voted only only at the next meeting.  This prevents the board from being steamrollered.  TRSB has no such policy or procedure. We are as flat as cardboard cutouts.

PART TWO:   “Building Positive Relations with the Public and the Press.”

Much of this discussion was taken up with techniques for suppressing board members with minority opinions from speaking to the press.  By coincidence a chairman sitting next to me said, “I don’t agree with that. Haven’t they heard about Plaistow?”

“That was me,” I said.

“Thank you,” he responded. “I give that article to all my board members.”

He is referring  TRSB’s School Board Rules fiasco in 2014 that disallowed individual board members from speaking to the press or criticizing a board decision in public.  The NH ACLU stepped in to rescue our First Amendment rights, not to mention our duty as elected representatives of our towns.

Yes, despite the black eye Timberlane got when mightily beaten up in the press, the NHSBA is still urging board chairmen to reign in their members so that the press gets a unified message.  Not only that but School Board member ethics policy was brought up as a way to entrap board members into behaving as they are told.  The ethics policy, which all board members are asked to sign, requires members to support all decisions made by the board. (I refuse to sign this because of this provision and don’t you think Mr. Bealo piped up to say, “She won’t even sign the Ethics Policy!”) Ted Comstock,  NHSBA Executive Director, said that an elected board member could be removed from the board for consistently violating policy.

This is patently false, but why not instill this falsehood in chairmen to embolden their persecution of minority opinion on their boards?  By law, elected officials can be removed from office for only two reasons – stealing and violation of confidentiality with a material consequence.

Someone in the audience getting into the spirit of things said that the liability insurance provided to board members would not extend to rogue board members violating policy.  I wonder how that would work when challenged in court: unconstitutional policy leads to (illegal) withholding of board member’s liability insurance?

PART THREE: Board Chair Roundtable and Best Practices

Much of the roundtable discussion had to do with suppressing public comment at school board meetings.  It was received wisdom in the room that no boards should respond to public comment. It was said that meetings are not a forum for educating the public. And that, in a nutshell, is the attitude that travels like a virus from the NHSBA to every school board in the state. We, the almighty school board, do not have to answer to you, peon parents and taxpayers!   It is exactly this warped attitude that justifies chairmen in having parents shut down at meetings and/or seeking their arrest as happened in Alton, NH.  http://aclu-nh.org/aclu-nh-settles-alton-free-speech-case-for-42500/

Mr. Christina also encouraged chairmen to have their boards adopt a policy that limits public comment to agenda items only.

You got an issue?  You can’t handle an issue! Speak to the agenda or don’t speak at all.

CONCLUSION

Ask yourself, as I have, who these misguided opinions are serving. It is clearly not the elected officials who have an obligation to represent their constituents with every atom of their best efforts and to respond to their concerns. To me, it is clear that this organization exists to advance the interests of SAUs and puppet school boards. They do this also by active lobbying at the state legislature, too.

If NHSBA lost its funding, I would salvage only their model policy bank and their collective agreement database, both of which could be maintained by dedicated volunteers. What about their legal advice service? Since the district is NHSBA’s client, not individual school board members, the association does not give advice to individual elected officials. For those districts without boards that allow unlimited legal expenses as does TRSD, this function could easily be taken over by the NH Municipal Association.

Looking for cuts, Gov. Hassan?  Let me point the way.

The opinions expressed in this article are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect any organization of which I am a member.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under School Board Behavior, Taxes

Policy vs. Practice

Timberlane Policy DJE

BIDDING REQUIREMENTS
The Superintendent is required to get written competitive bids on purchases of supplies, materials, equipment, and contractual services in the amount of $10,000 or more. As a general rule, purchases of $1,000 or more per item will require at least three competitive documented quotes for the open market. All purchases made in the open market shall be consummated after careful evaluation.

In May 2014, your current board added the following: “Existing services that continue to meet the needs of the district shall be subject to an annual review and may not need to go out to bid.”

This is the pernicious result:

To me, the most flagrant example of the mismanagement of your money is the board’s refusal to insist that all contracts go out to bid on a regular basis. Our auditing arrangement is badly in need of a change because our annual audits are regularly 8 months late and are given to the SAU instead of the school board which is the authority that nominally commissions the audit and is the responsible body for dealing with weaknesses.

 

 

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Filed under Expenditures, School Board Behavior, School Board Functioning, Taxes

Many Steps Too Far

Our superintendent has announced yet another Advisory Committee, this time one called the “Timberlane Parents Advisory Forum.”

You may think this initiative is an invitation to dialogue, but it is actually a dead end to elected irresponsibility.

Here is today’s announcement:

Superintendent Dr. Earl Metzler is pleased to announce the establishment of TPAF, the Timberlane Parents Advisory Forum. TPAF will meet every other month, beginning in January, and be co-chaired by parent Julie Hammond, former Citizen Advisory Committee member Kate Delfino, and District administrators Deb Armfield and Christi Michaud. TPAF is charged with providing a forum for parents of Timberlane students to share their concerns and offer feedback to District leaders regarding program, curriculum and instruction. All parents of Timberlane students are invited to attend these meetings. Dates, times and locations of these meetings will be posted at ttps://public.timberlane.net/projects/paradv/default.aspx .

Parents may suggest agenda topics for these forums by emailing forum members at TPAF@timberlane.net.


This is a major initiative involving the community, parents and students, yet it was done completely without approval or even knowledge of the school board.  The school board should have been consulted to decide the scope of this “forum” and how it was to be composed – if at all. You will notice that there is no school board member involved with this “forum.”

You may think it alarmist for me to say again, yet even more forcefully in this case, that these advisory groups which have grown more numerous than mushrooms on a damp lawn are turning the school board into a Potemkin Village.

Every issue, every problem you have will now be directed to some advisory committee or forum or other and your elected officials will know nothing but what the SAU chooses to put on our agenda – of which individual school board members have no control. Under the guise of open dialogue, you are being stripped of accountability from your elected officials on the school board.

If the superintendent intended to isolate and emasculate the school board, he couldn’t have been more effective than his current course of action. The most disturbing element of these groups constructed by our superintendent is that they are being allowed and even encouraged by a board that doesn’t recognize how its own authority and avenues of information are being curtailed and undermined.

Here is the primary symptom of a lack of meaningful elected oversight: a $69.3 million budget for 16/17 was approved by the budget committee last night after only two meetings with the full budget. The proposed budget is up 1.5% over this current year’s budget.  Three new deans were added to the high school administration, a behaviorist, and one teacher/management position added to the music department in the proposed 16/17 budget. Enrollment in the district is expected to decline by 148 students next year.

Twenty-three positions were cut from the budget but despite my direct inquiries, the superintendent would not say how many of these cut positions were actually filled. TRSD has long carried an undisclosed number of vacant positions in the budget.

Going to warrant in March will most likely be a new teacher’s contract and a few facilities upgrades.

 

 

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Filed under Budget Committee, School Board Functioning, Taxes, The Mushroom Farm

Plaistow Didn’t Get Homeland Grant

This just out from the SAU:

Hello board members,

We have learned this morning that the Town of Plaistow was not awarded the Homeland Security grant that would have partially funded the proposed generators at the high school and PAC.  Please find attached a revised agenda for next week’s board meeting as there is no need to move forward with this agenda item at this time. 


 

The previous agenda had this as the first order of business:

Homeland Security Grant (Shelter Designation) – ACTION (15 minutes)


 

Thankfully we will not now need to hurriedly vote on making the high school an emergency shelter, with so many unknowns about the requirements and the cost. It will also save us $217,000 from the facilities budget for two generators (at half cost), one for the HS and one for the PAC.

 

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Filed under Expenditures, Taxes

SAU Budget Increased at Public Hearing

Nearly $49,000 was added to the SAU budget last night in anticipation of higher health insurance rates. I made numerous motions to cut the budget from travel allowances to an unfilled human resource administrative position ($80k with benefits). Every single motion failed spectacularly.

Since the 2013/14 year, the SAU budget has gone up 44%.  Taxpayers, has your property value gone up 44% or your pay?

Mr. Dinsmore, member from Hampstead, said the problem is the federal government driving costs, such as Obamacare, down onto the districts and the SAU.  We are helpless to do anything about it at the SAU level, he believes.  I guess that is why no one supported cutting the travel expense line in the budget from a luxurious $17,000 to $10,000 which is what was spent in 14/15. Or cutting the 3% “merit pool” for SAU employees.

The SAU is a service organization to the Timberlane and Hampstead School Districts. It is also a monopoly. Districts cannot seek services elsewhere without a district vote and years of transition. I neglected to ask at last night’s public hearing how much of a raise for the superintendent (to 2022) was built into the budget. The superintendent’s most recent raise was 6.75% with a 4% bonus. The SAU does not publish the salaries of the SAU staff – even for the benefit of the SAU board – despite the fact that this is public information. The SAU board likes it this way because the less information they have, the more effectively they can administer the budget. Information gums up the rubber stamp.

 

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Facilities Budget Doubling

Timberlane’s Facilities Committee has put forward budget requests totaling $1.9 million.  This is more than a doubling of last year’s facilities budget.

At the November 5th school board meeting, the board discussed how they could strip items out of the facilities request either by moving them to warrant or cutting them altogether for inclusion in another year (via the Capital Improvement Plan).  They cut just $180,000 worth of projects. Projects retained included the future purchase of generators for the PAC and the high school with 50% of the acquisition costs funded by a federal grant. Cost to Timberlane for two generators would be $217,000- after 50% paid by government.

Another large item in the budget request is $370,000 to repoint the exterior bricks of the gym.  You are reading that correctly:  $3-7-0  THOUSAND.  To put such a gargantuan number in perspective, Sandown’s road paving and repair budget for 2015 is $327,500.

Here is a video clip of me questioning the Facilities Director, Mr. Hughes, as to whether he has explored other solutions for the wall.  What follows is instructive. For the record, you should know that despite Ms. Steenson’s avowals, an alternative approach to fixing the gym wall was not discussed at a Facilities meeting and my question was both new, to the point, and certainly of interest to taxpayers.

How do I know the repointing of the gym wall was not questioned?  I attend all the Facilities meetings. Furthermore, despite Ms. Steenson’s implication to the contrary, neither the Facilities Committee nor the Budget Committee are ever provided with any written third party quotes, bids or estimates for the facilities and site work numbers being requested in the budget. You hear a lot of things at school board meetings.  Not all of it can be taken at face value.

I can only hope the budget committee questions some of these projects and puts some of them to warrant for the voters to decide.

Building Projects historical budget:

  • 2011:  $608,850;
  •  2012: $273,400;
  • 2013: $472,400;
  • 2014: $457,310;
  • 2015: $457,310; (default budget)
  •  2016: $647,310
  • ASK 2017: $1.632 million

Site projects Budget:

  • 2011: $67,250
  • 2012: $79,800
  • 2013: $143,500
  • 2014: $159,050
  • 2015: $159,050 (default budget)
  • 2016: $217,600
  • 2017: ASK $349,000

Yes, our facilities are aging but our budgets to maintain them have also escalated.

You can watch the entire school board meeting here:

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Public Hearing for SAU Budget

Tomorrow night, Nov. 18, SAU55 is holding a public hearing on their 2016/17 budget.

2016-17 Proposed SAU Budget Notice with Detail (2)

The budget is up 30% over two years.  Here are other things people generally don’t know about the SAU’s budget.

  • Only the SAU board can change the SAU budget.
  • Voters have no say over the SAU budget.  They can neither approve nor reject the budget, and they have no power to change so much as a single line of it.
  • The SAU budget is inserted as a single line item into the budgets of Timberlane and Hampstead School Districts.  This is the ONLY line in both school district budgets that cannot be changed by citizens at Deliberative.
  • In March 2013 district citizens voted to separated the SAU budget from the school districts budgets on the strength of a successful citizen’s petitioned warrant article (promulgated by Jorge Mesa-Tejada in Hampstead, and your humble correspondent in Timberlane).  This meant that voters could reject the SAU budget and put it into default. That is exactly what happened in March of 2014. Ironically, the March 2014 election also saw another citizen’s petition  reverse the previous petition, putting the SAU budget for 15/16 once again  into the school districts’ budgets. This stripped voters of any subsequent say about the SAU’s relentless salary and expense increases. Sandown citizens voted in the majority in 2014 to keep the SAU budget separate, but they were outvoted by the other towns in the district.
  • Not a single cut was made to the SAU’s proposed budget by the SAU board. The merit pool increase for employees was not even mentioned or disclosed.
  • Voters’ only dim hope is to pressure the SAU board into reducing the budget at the SAU’s public hearing tomorrow night.

*I previously reported that Timberlane’s portion of the SAU budget can be rejected only if the entire budget for Timberlane goes to default. That is not correct.  Even if Timberlane’s budget goes into default, the SAU still gets every cent it asked for.  Rotten state of affairs, but there you go.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
 – Omar Khayyam (not writing about the SAU budget in 1942)

 

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Filed under SAU 55 Issues, Taxes