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Pembroke residents sound off on tax hike after school shortfall

  • Pembroke school officials listen to residents talk about the town’s tax spike at a school board meeting on Tuesday. From left are Hill School Principal Susan Griffith, Three Rivers Principal Jon Marston, Pembroke Academy principal Paul Famulari, SAU 53 Business Administrator Amber Wheeler, SAU 53 co-superintendent Patty Sherman, and Pembroke school board Chairman Dan Driscoll. Lola Duffort / Concord Monitor



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pembroke residents aren’t letting their school officials off the hook.

About 200 residents once again packed the Pembroke Academy auditorium on Tuesday night, just weeks after they first came to the school in droves to give officials an earful about a $1 million school shortfall that led to a steep spike in taxes.

SAU 53 co-superintendent Patty Sherman opened the meeting by saying she would be answering questions brought by residents about the shortfall at the board’s last meeting.

“I will continue to write down any questions, and we will make sure that they are all answered to your satisfaction,” she said.

Sherman has also been criticized for saying nothing when residents first gathered in the auditorium to hear about the tax hike earlier this month. She said Tuesday that that meeting had been called by the town’s budget committee, and that she had understood the format wouldn’t allow for conversation.

“Hindsight is 20/20, and I can certainly understand why the public said we really would have liked to hear from you. And I apologize if I gave you the bad impression that I didn’t want to speak to you or you weren’t going to hear from me,” she said.

Sherman’s opening statement did little to mollify residents who came to speak, several of whom called specifically for her dismissal.

“If something happened like this in a regular job – somebody would have been fired,” Pembroke resident Diana Young said, prompting an extended round of applause from the crowd.

School board members have repeatedly said they stand by their administrators. Dan Driscoll, the board chairman, reiterated during a recess that a firing was “not on the table.”

A large part of the shortfall was due to tuition revenue from towns’ sending students to Pembroke Academy that never materialized when far fewer students enrolled or stayed at the school than projected.

April Villani, a mother in town, said she was one of the many parents who had opted to send their children to a charter school instead of the district’s schools.

“I would encourage each of you board members to explore why there is a downturn in enrollment. People have stories,” Villani told the board. “You want to hear their stories. You want to hear what’s working great. But you need to hear what’s not working for families.”

Ann Bond, a resident, handed the school board a petition she said over 300 people had signed requesting a special meeting on the shortfall.

School board members have already frozen this year’s budget. They told administrators they also expect to see major cuts as staffers work to draft next year’s budget.

“The board’s general sentiment is we’d like to see a budget that includes approximately $1 million worth of cuts,” Driscoll said. “I think the board’s general sentiment is we’d like to drive that tax rate back down to something that’s somewhat reasonable.”

Taxpayers aren’t the only ones upset with the school district. Town officials, many of whom have had to deal with angry residents, have been vocal about their displeasure about the shortfall and the way it was handled.

When, at select board meeting Monday, town administrator David Jodoin read the select board a statement school officials had recently released about the tax increase, several complained it wasn’t forthright. They took issue, in particular, with part of the letter that said a recent reassessment had contributed to the tax spike.

“My point with it is this is – it really didn’t have anything to do with the reassessment. And that sentence should not have been in that letter,” select board Chairwoman Tina Courtemanche said.

Property values went up about 10 percent townwide in the last reassessment. That affected the tax rate – but not the actual amount of money that needed to be raised by taxes.

Property tax relief is available for some who can’t pay.

New Hampshire Legal Assistance attorney Ruth Heintz said the easiest option for homeowners is a property tax deferral, for which people are eligible if they’re 65 or older or on certain federal assistance programs.

If a town approves a deferral, homeowners can defer payment until they sell the property or the outstanding tax bills amount to most of the equity in the home. Interest on back taxes goes down to 5 percent.

People can also ask the town to abate their taxes, either by contesting their assessment or by establishing hardship. That’s much tougher, Heintz warns.

“Abatement is a really high standard, because you have to show that there’s no other option for you,” she said.

 

To apply for free legal help with a property tax appeal, people can visit nhlegalaid.org. If you’re 60 or over and have been denied property tax relief, you can call Legal Assistance at 624-6000

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story implied April Villani’s children were high-school aged. They are in elementary school.