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Taxpayers, school board in Chichester add odds over stipends

A much-deserved bonus for hardworking teachers or a betrayal of the public trust by the school board?

The answer depends largely on who you ask in Chichester, where a group of residents is crying foul over the school board’s approval of a one-time stipend for teachers, months after voters rejected a teacher contract that included pay raises. Both sides, about 50 people, turned out for last night’s school board meeting at Chichester Central School.

While apologizing to residents who felt the decision was done in secret, the board didn’t back down from its decision to reward staff for the school’s nomination as a national Blue Ribbon School finalist.

“I’m sorry you feel it was done in secret,” said board member Ben Brown. “The reason it was done in private was to surprise the teachers.”

The dispute started after town meeting March 8, when voters rejected a contract with salary and benefit increases that would have cost the town about $50,000 annually. If the contract and budget had been approved as is, the local school tax rate would have increased by 39 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. On April 16, the board approved the $35,534 stipend after learning of the Blue Ribbon nomination. The stipend paid the principal $2,000, while certified staff and noncertified staff members received $1,000 and $200, respectively.

The National Blue Ribbons Schools Program was started by the U.S. Department of Education in 1982 as a way to recognize public and private elementary, middle and high schools where students perform at high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students’ academic achievement. This year, Chichester is one of the finalists.

The stipend was a way to congratulate the school and thank its staff for putting the school in a position to be recognized nationally, said school board Chairman Harold Losey.

“We all got the message that in the current year we had to live under the budget you passed, and that constrained us quite a bit,” said Losey. Awarding the stipend was a “judgment call,” he said. “We chose to protect and nourish our most valuable asset. That was our belief.”

Residents last night lauded the teachers’ work, but said the board’s action leading up to the decision lacked transparency.

Resident Jason Weir, who created an Inside Chichester blog to document the decision-making, said the board violated the state’s “No Means No” law when it paid the stipend after raises were voted down.

“I think that the ethical, moral and right thing would be to bring these decisions before the community,” Weir said.

The board defended its actions by citing RSA 32:10, which deals with the transfer of appropriations and states: “If changes arise during the year following the annual meeting that make it necessary to expend more than the amount appropriates for specific purposes, the governing body may transfer to that appropriation an unexpended balance remaining in some other appropriation.”

This led some to question the definition of “necessary.”

“When we said ‘no’ to you, what did ‘no’ mean to you?” asked resident Donna Chagnon.

Supporters said the stipend was a needed morale boost after the contracted raises were voted down.

“It’s very hard not to be emotional when everything we do at this school we do with our hearts,” said teacher Kate Tiernan-Mara. The stipend “was not only an unexpected surprise, but a wonderful surprise that made us feel supported.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com or on Twitter@iainwilsoncm.)

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