Local Government 101

Trying to understand the lines of responsibility in the school district is a little like going to a wedding of a blended family.  It takes a while to figure out the relationships – and the issues. (Please read to the end to get my take on the issues generated by the structure and organization.)

Citizens in New Hampshire towns elect school board members and school budget committee members.

Our Regional District

The school district where I live, in Sandown, NH, is a regional district. It encompasses the neighboring towns of Plaistow, Danville, Atkinson and Sandown, NH. These towns have their own elementary schools  but they all send their students to the Timberlane Regional Middle School and Timberlane Regional High School in the border town of Plaistow, NH.  The Timberlane district has approximately 4,000 students.   Sandown’s share of that population is about 26%  Keeping those kids in school is not cheap, as we all know. In 2011, Sandown tax payers gave 77% of their property taxes to fund education.

Administering all these schools is what’s known in New Hampshire as a “School Administrative Unit,” or SAU for short.  The SAU is a separate organization with its own budget, funded proportionally by the member towns. Our SAU is #55 in New Hampshire.  It comprises one Superintendent, one Assistant Superintendent, one business administrator, an assistant business administrator, a human resources manager, a transportation coordinator and staff. Their budget is approximately $1.3 million, 60% of which goes to salaries (according to the SAU55 budget of 2012-2013).

SAU55 also administers the public schools in Hampstead, NH.  Hampstead students do not attend Timberlane regional school facilities. (Hampstead high school students attend Pinkerton Academy in Derry, NH.)  The schools and budgets of Hampstead and Timberlane Regional districts are completely separate.

Composition of the School Boards and SAU Board

Timberlane’s school board has three members from Plaistow, and two from the remaining three towns, for a total of nine members.  Hampstead’s school board has five members. The SAU is directed by a board consisting of members from both Timberlane and Hampstead school boards for a total of fourteen members.  The Superintendent attends SAU meetings.  The SAU Business Administrator attends Budget Committee meetings.

SAU’s Own Budget and School Budget

Taxpayers might be surprised to learn, as I was, that their representatives on the Budget Committee cannot influence the SAU budget whatsoever, or at least that is what we are told on joining the Budcom.  The SAU budget is prepared by the SAU itself and approved by the SAU board then presented at a public hearing in November. It is funded out of the respective school districts budgets.

When it comes to the school district budget, the respective school boards are required by state statute to prepare their own budgets and present it to the SAU for their feedback.  In practice, this is completely reversed.  SAU55 prepares the school district’s budget which the budget committee and school boards approve. This is then presented at a public hearing in January, followed by the annual school deliberative session in February where changes to the budget can be made by majority vote.

The Timberlane district budget was $62 million for 2012-2013. That includes a million dollars for operating the SAU,  Timberlane’s share of the SAU’s total cost of $1.3 million.

Town Government

Although there are a few souls of high fellowship who might easily be mistaken for Sandown’s mayor, our town has no mayor.  We have a five-person Board of Selectmen. Each position is a three year term. The Planning Board is also elected.  That is a a seven member board with three year terms also.  Members of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, all five of them,  are appointed by the Selectmen. Each of these groups has a chairman and a vice chairman whose role is to conduct meetings and attend to administrative functions. They are not the boss of the other members as all the members are equal in authority.

Planning Board writes the zoning regulations which are ‘adjusted’ by the ZBA on consideration of requests from applicants. Planning Board also assists developers in subdividing land in keeping with the subdivision regulations and the goals of the community as expressed in the town’s master plan.

In Sandown, a lovely town of 6,000 people, the Board of Selectmen meets on Monday nights, every other Monday in the summer.  They invite public participation at the beginning of each meeting and after each agenda item. Planning Board and Selectmen meetings are televised live and replayed throughout the week by the local cable facilities for insomniacs.

News Sources

Sandown is enormously fortunate to have an excellent local newspaper that covers Sandown, Chester and Hampstead, The Tri-Town Times. We also have some local coverage from the Pulitzer prize winning Eagle Tribune newspaper in Lawrence, Mass. The Carriage Towne News is circulated to towns in the Seacoast region but this paper does no reporting.  It is, nevertheless, a good forum for letters to the editor. In addition to print, Sandown has a modest website, http://www.sandown.us, and a local cable station that broadcasts local meetings, events and community notices.

Public Participation

New Hampshire is characterized by limited government and a devotion to local control. Citizens vote by ballot once a year on a raft of issues affecting their town from paving roads to buying fire and police equipment. Anyone can get an issue on the ballot with a tiny number of signatures but most of the items on the ballot are generated by the Selectmen and occasionally by the Planning Board requesting zoning changes.  The warrant articles are debated at a deliberative session that takes place about a month before voting day in March.

The Issues

This all sounds eminently democratic. Here are the practical problems.

  • The SAUs have too much power and influence over elected bodies.
  • The School board and the budget committee rubber stamp budgets prepared by the SAU. One year spirited members of the budget committee boycotted the budget approval meeting, depriving the meeting of a quorum. The budget was illegally approved anyway. The Attorney General’s office did nothing but suggest the offended budget committee members sue. With the Attorney General’s office turning a blind eye to violations of RSAs, it is no wonder powerful organizations behave any way they like.
  • Public participation at public hearings where budgets are approved is negligible. The majority of our taxes go to schools, and taxpayers groan about our burden, yet no one shows up to contest the budget. This is not out of apathy but out of frustration. People genuinely feel they can’t change anything. Right thinking people on the school board and budget committee who want to reassert their statutory and moral authority over the SAU often feel the same way. We need public participation at budget approval meetings, and we need more people to run for school board and budget committee to get fresh thinking into these boards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s