Salisbury, Webster petitions call for study on withdrawing from Merrimack Valley School District
Residents in two of the five communities that make up the Merrimack Valley School District are in the early stages of exploring a possible withdrawal.
Petitions circulating in Salisbury and Webster are asking the school board to establish a committee to study the “opportunities and liabilities” associated with withdrawal from the district, which also serves Boscawen, Loudon and Penacook.
“We’re basically petitioning to gain more knowledge, which may very well reinforce what we have is best,” said Mason Donovan, a Webster resident and one of the town’s selectmen. Donovan said he started the Webster petition – the same one being used in Salisbury – after the district’s annual meeting in February, when voters rejected a proposal to cut $363,500 and a motion to switch the annual meeting to Saturday. “It started some talk going around, and I created that petition just to see if there is interest in gaining more knowledge and learning a little bit more,” he said.
“It kind of caught fire.”
Donovan, who said he started the petition as a private resident, is not in favor of withdrawing from the district. At this point, most people he has talked to agree, he said. “What we are in favor of is having the school board create this committee,” he said. A study would hopefully answer two important questions: Is it financially feasible to leave the district, and is it feasible to join another district?
The petition is also making rounds in Salisbury, where a small group of residents in recent months has publicly criticized the board. “The selectmen have not received a petition to hold a special meeting as of yet,” selectmen Chairman Ken Ross-Raymond said in an email. “There is a petition being circulated in reference to forming a study committee in regards to withdrawing from the district.”
The school board is aware of the petitions, said Vice Chairwoman Normandie Blake of Webster. “We haven’t been formally presented any petitions, so right now it’s wait and see,” she said. “There’s no use getting excited about it until we have it in hand. Once we do, then we’ll proceed.”
The path to possible withdrawal is laid out by state law, which requires district voter approval before a town can separate.
Districts must conduct a feasibility study if voters in a member town direct the school board to do so. Before this step is taken, the selectmen would need to schedule a special town meeting for a vote on the article, based on the petitions. If the school board creates a feasibility committee, it would need to have at least one member of the school board from each of the district’s towns and one selectman from each of the towns.
“It would be lengthy. It’s a long, long drawn-out process,” Blake said.
Within 180 days after the date of its formation, the committee would report its findings to the state Board of Education. If the study finds withdrawal is not a viable option, the town that voted to undertake the study can submit a minority report. Only after the state board approves a withdrawal plan would residents in the district get a chance to vote on the proposal.
Blake, who has been on the school board for 26 years, said the last time she can recall seeing a study was in 1999, when Loudon looked at possible withdrawal. The district was formed in the late 1960s.
Six or seven petitions have been passed out in Webster, Donovan said, but the total number of signatures hasn’t been counted. In Salisbury, it is unknown how many people have signed. “If we see 200 or more signatures, we will see that as a sign it is sufficient to call a special town meeting,” he said.
The petitions are nonbinding, meaning the board of selectmen is not required to set a special meeting. “By doing a nonbinding petition, it allows the select board a little more freedom to schedule a town meeting. It allows for a greater discussion; that’s what the whole push is for. Can we increase our knowledge about what’s going on?” Donovan said.
(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)