Henniker school board eases into first SB 2 deliberative session

  • Michael French (center) listens during the Henniker school district’s first deliberative session on Feb. 5, 2018. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Henniker school board members Deb Urbaitis (left) and Zach Lawson listen as a resident speaks during the school district’s first town meeting Feb. 5, 2018. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, February 05, 2018

The scene unfolding Monday night at Henniker Community School was unfamiliar to Henniker residents.

They filed in, confronted with a sixth-grade bake sale and a table, where they were handed a pink piece of paper. They settled amidst their neighbors and waited patiently, until Wayne Lesperance, a political professor at New England College and the night’s moderator, stood up at 7 p.m. and welcomed them to the school district’s first-ever deliberative session.

“We’re going to be doing things differently from what we’re used to,” Lesperance said, before listing the rules familiar to several dozen other school districts and municipalities: You can debate, propose changes to and vote on the warrant articles you’ll be hearing tonight, but remember – voting is still in March.

A few minutes later, the question to informally read the warrant went out, and the pink slips went up. From there, Henniker’s first SB 2 deliberative session went smoothly.

Eerily so, said school board officials.

“It was very quiet,” said Henniker school board Chairwoman Deb Urbaitis. “I planned on being here for multiple hours.” Only three people spoke during the session, and all six of the warrants, including a $7.7 million operating budget and an article to create a full-day kindergarten program, passed without changes. People were on their way to their cars less than an hour after the session started.

But whether the switch from traditional town meeting to SB 2 will result in more people being informed about the school’s budget and curbing spending – the goal behind the residents’ petition last year that put SB 2 rules into place – remains to be seen.

The town of Henniker still uses a traditional town meeting format.

Urbaitis said the board has held a public hearing on the budget and has mailed out notices to residents detailing the changes around SB 2. The key differences being that, in an SB 2 format, residents meet on a separate day from voting day and can make amendments to warrant articles that members vote on. Once an amendment is decided on, it goes to a ballot vote on the second Tuesday in March.

In some ways, the change is a relief, Urbaitis said.

“It’s nice to have something like full-day kindergarten having its own warrant article, because the voters get to decide,” she said. “We do all this work on it, and it’s either up or down.”

Henniker school board member and John Stark school board Chairman Zach Lawson said that, while the turnout for the meeting was similar to town meetings in the past, he had to laugh when he spoke of the little discussion that occurred.

“When you think about the amount of hours the administration put into the budget, only for us to be out of here in an hour, it’s kind of anticlimactic,” he said.

But both Urbaitis and Lawson said they expected a livelier meeting Friday, when the John Stark Regional High School budget will go through its own deliberative session. In addition to a teacher’s contract, the board will be asking for a $2 million wood chip boiler they say will be tax-neutral. Both items are expected to generate discussion, Lawson said.

Michael French was skeptical of the format at first. But by the end of the night, he said he was on board.

“I was concerned someone would come in and try to slash the budget in a way that was catastrophic,” he said. “I think it’s good; it allows more people to vote.”

Henniker is certainly not alone in using the SB 2 format: The bill passed in 1995 and several towns and school districts quickly adopted it. As of the start of 2018, 62 local school and 20 regional schools – including Henniker and Weare’s John Stark Regional High School – use the SB 2 format, according to the New Hampshire Department of Revenue.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)