Pembroke voters will see a long warrant in March

  • Pembroke Academy as seen on April, 2, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Sunday, February 25, 2018

A long warrant this March will be another side-effect of the Pembroke school district’s budget shortfall.

“Here’s the biggest thing for me. My personal property taxes increased more in 2017 than in the 12 years prior,” said Steve Donovan, who wrote, along with a handful of other residents, seven of eight petitioned articles. “The community needs to be better informed and represented. I couldn’t sit by and watch the SAU make these big financial mistakes without taking action.”

Some of the eight articles are duplicates of one another with minor adjustments. But all aim, in some form or another, to get more people involved in the work of overseeing the district.

Two different articles would add an additional two members to the Pembroke school board “for the purpose of providing oversight and direction to the (school administrative unit),” although one includes $600 to pay for stipends.

The school board unanimously declined to recommend the articles regarding additional members, arguing you couldn’t elect a school board member for a specific purpose.

Donovan said in an interview he included both articles in case people didn’t want to support the stipends but did want to support additional representation. He also said the article’s wording “came out wrong,” and wasn’t intended to imply the new school board members wouldn’t have the same rights and responsibilities as their peers.

The school board did, however, decide in a split 3-2 vote to recommend a petitioned article that would set $3,600 aside to create a system for livestreaming school board meetings. (A similar article is on the town’s warrant. The select board and budget committee have recommended it.)

“Bigger towns, bigger communities, even smaller communities are already doing this on probably a larger scale than we’re talking here,’ ” said school board chairman Dan Driscoll.

Board members Patricia Nardone Boucher and Tom Serafin were in the minority to vote against the idea. Both expressed misgivings about the cost and logistics of the proposal.

“I’ll tell you what it would take for me to be supportive of this is if we got the budget that we asked for, plus $3,600. Then I could be supportive of this. But we’re laying off 17 people,” Serafin said.

Donovan told the school board he reached out to more than 200 municipalities to find out if and how they video-recorded meetings. According to his research, he said, $3,600 could cover the installation of two, fixed, wide-angle cameras, and a livestreaming service with Amazon.

“It’s cheap, it’s effective, and even in the light of the additional taxes people had to pay, people are still willing to pay this,” he said.

Another petitioned article, not drafted by Donovan, asks that the school administrative unit’s budget be included in the annual warrant as a separate article. Currently, the budget for the central office which oversees the five districts is approved by the SAU board. The SAU’s expenses are then included in the Epsom, Pembroke, Deerfield, Allenstown and Chichester budgets on a per-pupil basis.

SAUs can often become flashpoints for tax-weary residents because their budgets aren’t directly controlled by taxpayers. But that tension was compounded in Pembroke this year after co-superintendent Patty Sherman was awarded a contract with 2.5 percent raise just as the shortfall was being discovered.

The school board unanimously declined to recommend the article after Sherman told them it would be null and void anyway unless the SAU’s other districts approved a similar measure. No such article is on the ballot in other towns. She also argued voting directly on the SAU budget could be difficult, since not all five towns are on the same budgeting time-table.

Two other articles would establish a committee “for the purpose of reviewing, interpreting and amending the AREA agreement and to review the AREA agreement annually” to ensure its consistent application. The AREA agreement governs the tuitioning deal between Pembroke, Chichester, Allenstown and Epsom.

Donovan said one of the articles was submitted as a mistake – only one, which includes the stipulation that the committee be appointed by the moderator – was supposed to go before voters.

The board also declined to support the article. Some pointed out that the AREA agreement couldn’t unilaterally be amended by Pembroke, and other expressed misgivings about opening up the agreement at all. School board member Clint Hanson, for example, said the agreement was already a fair deal.

“I understand that there has been some discussion that somehow the AREA agreement should be amended such that Pembroke would get a guaranteed amount of tuition,” Hanson said. “I would not want to ... present that to the other boards and expect to get out of that meeting alive.”

The last two petitioned articles have to do with converting the Pembroke’s annual school district meeting format to an SB 2 form of voting. The first article would make the conversion; the second would give the municipal budget committee the responsibility to create the school district’s default budget. The default budget is the budget that goes into effect when the budget that is put before residents is voted down.

The school board unanimously declined to endorse both ideas.

“The purpose of SB 2, as much as people would likely argue that it’s to get more people to participate, is in fact … to get people not to pay attention to what’s going on and vote no. And it’s been very effective at that,” Hanson said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)