Concord Charter Commission considers changes to school board structure

  • The Concord School District Charter Commission meets in the district board room Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Eileen O'Grady—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/3/2021 4:10:55 PM

In the coming months, the Concord School District Charter Commission will be discussing whether the school board should be able to continue making financial decisions autonomously, whether it should be expanded to include more members, and whether members should receive greater financial compensation and other proposed changes for how the school board operates.

At a Charter Commission meeting earlier this week, members brought forward various discussion items that have been proposed by community members as possible changes to the school district's charter. Concord superintendent Kathleen Murphy, school board president Jim Richards and business manager Jack Dunn, a former school board member, presented their opinions on several of the topics.

The Concord School Board is unique in New Hampshire in that it determines it’s budget independently without either a town meeting, a ballot vote from citizens or a sign-off from city government officials. Richards and Dunn both argued in favor of keeping that independence, saying it gives the district the advantage of being able to act quickly to get good financial deals and save money. Richards said that power proved useful when Concord Steam abruptly closed in 2017, leaving the district with a short period of time to approve money for a project to convert schools to natural gas heat.

“Because of the way our charter was written, and because of the way our board was able to work together, we were able to implement a program to heat the schools and to be able to fund it, and to be able to start that project in less than a few months, so that we never had to worry about the classes being out of heat,” Richards said. “That ability and that flexibility and breadth of our charter, I think, was really critical and I would ask you to retain that.”

Dunn added that power was also useful in 2010, when the board approved a plan to build three new elementary schools simultaneously, something he says likely wouldn’t have passed in a community vote based on the economic times, but the timing ended up saving money.

“Being able to go at any time rather than wait for town meeting is powerful,” Dunn said.

Murphy said that in districts she formerly worked, having the school budget dependent on town meetings can be challenging, especially because the meetings often have low turnout or are “stacked” with a disproportionate number of people from special interest groups that sway the direction of the voting.

Another topic for discussion was whether school board members should continue to be elected by district, and whether the number of members should be increased.

When the Charter Commission last convened 10 years ago, it changed the school board makeup from all at-large to having two members from District A (Wards 1, 2, 3 and 4), two members from District B (Wards 5, 6 and 7), two members from District C (Wards 8, 9 and 10) and three at-large members. Richards, who represents District A on the school board, says he would like to see the current districts system continue, because it allows candidates to pay attention to specific issues in their own neighborhoods.

“One thing about having smaller districts is that I can knock on a lot of doors and and a lot of people can get to know me in that timeframe we’re out there,” Richards said. “Their concerns reflected a lot of the general community, but I still can’t imagine not knocking on the doors and doing face to face with the parents, with the citizens, with the taxpayers of Concord.”

Richards also suggested that Concord School Board candidates should have to disclose their campaign finances, an idea supported by some Charter Commission members.

“We had to fill out financial forms for this committee, and I think it’s a great idea and we should pass it on to school board members, also,” said commissioner Clint Cogswell a former board member.

Community member Charlie Russell, speaking during the public comment period, suggested that school board members receive higher compensation for their work than the current rate of $1,000 per year, given the significant time commitment of board work and serving on multiple committees. The district charter document currently requires school board members to be paid the same amount that City Council members receive.

“There are people out there that might be more apt to run if they knew they were getting some compensation,” Russell said. “Yankee frugality can only go so far. It’s time to look at some reasonable compensation for the people who are doing this work.”

The Charter Commission members, Bill Ardinger, Cogswell, Tom Croteau, Bill Glahn, Betty Hoadley, Nancy Kane, Tracey Lesser, Kate Vaughn and Eric Weiner, will decide at meetings over the next several months whether to make changes to the charter document, and will finalize any proposed changes in the spring. Proposed changes will be put to a city-wide vote on the next Election Day November 2022.

At Monday’s meeting, the members voted unanimously to hire Linden Jackett, who is currently the district’s assistant to the superintendent, to be the Charter Commission’s paid staff person, handling emails from the public and assisting with documentation and research. Jackett said she plans to do Charter Commission work in the evenings and on weekends, after her regular work day ends. 

“You’ve seen the proliferation of materials she has made available,” said Charter Commission Chair Betty Hoadley. “Because she has been here and been through the files from last time, she has the knowledge of where the information exists.”

The Charter Commission will meet next on Dec. 14 at 7:00 p.m., where members plan to hear from outgoing school district clerk Roger Phillips and incoming clerk Patrick Taylor.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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