Croydon residents outraged after school budget cut in half with meeting-day amendment

  • Thomas Moore, who stepped down from his position on the Croydon School Board this year, voices his anger in a meeting of the new board Monday after voters slashed the $1.7 million school budget that he helped craft by over 50% in response to an amendment from the floor at Saturday’s annual meeting. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Schoolboard Chairwoman Jody Underwood reacts to comments from a resident at the Croydon Town Hall on Monday. James M. Patterson / Valley News

  • Croydon Selectboard member Ian Underwood listens during a meeting of the school board, of which his wife, Jody Underwood, is chair. Ian Underwood presented the budget-cutting amendment at the annual meeting.

  • Lisa Fellows, of Croydon, voices her frustrations with the Croydon School Board on Monday after voters attending Saturday’s annual School Meeting amended from a proposed $1.7 million to $800,000.

  • As the Croydon School Board adjourns its meeting to address a more than 50% cut to its budget on Monday night, March 14, 2022, Hunter Jones, 16, of Croydon, does his nightly two-hour cleaning of the Croydon, N.H., Village School. Jones attended the school from kindergarten to fourth grade and now attends Newport High School where he is taking a welding class and considering a career in the trade. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News
Published: 3/16/2022 2:30:50 PM

The Croydon School Board got an earful Monday evening as about 75 people turned out to oppose what 20 town voters had approved days earlier.

On Saturday, during the school portion of Town Meeting, a motion from the floor reduced the advertised proposed budget of just over $1.7 million to $800,000 — a 53% cut — and was approved, 20-14.

Disbelief spread through the town over the next two days, culminating in Monday’s meeting where residents’ disappointment with the reduction was given a full-throated voice.

School board members Jody Underwood, Aaron McKeon and Kevin Morris faced a withering onslaught for more than three hours as residents questioned how the school was expected to operate on less than half of its proposed budget.

Angi Beaulieu, a former school board member, directed her ire at Underwood, whose husband, Ian, made the motion on Saturday to slash the school budget.

“I’m ashamed and disgusted by this reckless budget that was proposed by your husband,” Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu recalled that when the board she served on brought school choice to Croydon, the board held meeting after meeting and advertised what was being proposed and gave people a chance to comment on it and be part of the decision.

“It was not sprung on people at a meeting where it was going to be voted on,” Beaulieu said. “This was done recklessly and irresponsibly.”

School business administrator Beth Bierwirth answered the question many had come to Monday’s meeting to ask: Could the budget vote be overturned or somehow corrected?

The answer, according to Bierwirth, is no. She said she had spent the day on the phone with state officials and the conclusion was the vote had resulted in a legal budget that couldn’t be changed.

“The meeting Saturday is a legally binding meeting,” Bierwirth said. “Your budget is $800,000.”

The Croydon Village School has 24 students in grades K-4. And the town pays tuition for 49 Croydon students in grades 5 through 12 to attend schools in neighboring communities.

Bierwith said that if after trying to operate under the approved budget and finding it untenable, school officials could petition in court to be allowed to approve emergency spending.

“At this point and time, that budget is the legal budget,” Bierwirth said.

Town Clerk Kristi McKeon, who is school board member Aaron McKeon’s wife, also said she had researched the question and was told the vote was binding.

“What happened at the school meeting was perfectly legal, and there’s not really anything that can be done to change it,” Kristi McKeon said.

Many in Monday’s audience were incredulous that such a move could be allowed.

Board chairwoman Jody Underwood repeatedly told the crowd she had not supported the $800,000 budget, but each time she did, the crowd loudly, and occasionally profanely, objected.

Doubt about Underwood’s claim was fueled by the fact her own husband, Selectboard member Ian Underwood, who made the motion at Town Meeting to slash the budget.

Many on Monday accused the board of being in on the plan.

Ian Underwood told the crowd his wife didn’t know of his intentions until a couple of days before the meeting, and McKeon said he learned about it the night before.

Morris, who was elected to the board just last week at Town Meeting, said he didn’t know about the budget cut in advance.

One man complained the board had handed out copies of a pamphlet created by Ian Underwood, titled “Budget, or Ransom,” at Monday’s meeting. (The pamphlet was also handed out at Saturday’s meeting.)

Jody Underwood said the board distributed the pamphlet so there were no allegations of trying to hide anything.

While Ian Underwood remained mostly silent at Monday’s meeting, he did speak briefly, once to deny his wife’s involvement in his proposal and another to argue that the $800,000 budget was sufficient, though he did not offer any specifics.

“I really do believe it is possible to live within this budget if we try hard enough,” Ian Underwood said. “To say we can’t do this is a failure of imagination.”

In his pamphlet, Underwood noted that private schools, including the Newport Montessori school and Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, charge less than $9,000 for tuition.

He used a figure of 80 students for Croydon and a per pupil cost of $10,000 to come up with his $800,000 figure.

Ian Underwood also defended himself against those who pointed their finger at him.

“People keep saying I did this,” he said. “The town voted for this.”

McKeon, the town clerk, said the town has 565 registered voters, meaning 3.5% of registered voters voted in favor of Underwood’s budget cut.

Toward the end of the meeting, as the large crowd had dwindled to a dozen or so participants, cooler heads mostly prevailed and some who had spoken passionately earlier in the evening told the board they wanted to be part of the discussion to find solutions.

The board has until early April to submit its 2022-23 budget to the state, and the board plans to do just that, scheduling another meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday, at the Croydon Village School.

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