Pembroke voters side with school board on $25.3M budget

  • A record number of people settle in at the Pembroke Academy gym for the school district's annual meeting on Saturday, March 10, 2018. Lola Duffort—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, March 12, 2018

After a marathon debate, a record number of Pembroke residents cast their ballots, ultimately siding with the school board to approve a school district budget of $25.3 million for next year.

The packed meeting at Pembroke Academy on Saturday – which saw more people come out to vote than officials could remember seeing at a district meeting in decades – capped off a tumultuous five months for the town.

Voters were presented with two dueling budget proposals. One, brought forward by the school board was for $25.3 million. The other, brought forward by the budget committee, was for $24.5 million. Both cut well over $1 million from the current year’s $26.5 million budget.

Gerry Fleury, vice chairman of the budget committee, stood up to tell the crowd the committee hadn’t unanimously backed the cheapest budget.

“I think it’s malice. It’s spiteful to take that kind of money out,” he said.

And Clint Hanson, a school board member, said he was even uncomfortable with how deeply the board had cut to give taxpayers a break next year. Even without the budget committee’s cuts, the school board’s proposal cuts 16 positions.

“Between the return of 2017-18 surplus and the net reductions in the 18-19 budget, we put aside more than double the revenue shortfall attributed to the district,” he said.

Still, critics like Karen Yeaton, a budget committee member, urged voters to go for the budget committee’s recommendation. While enrollments declined over the years, spending had increased, she argued.

“The SAU and the school board consistently refuse to address spending to align with reduced service demands and that decision is what has put us into the current financial crisis,” she said.

Residents voted 286-236 to amend the budget warrant article from $24.5 million back up to $25.3 million – the school board’s proposal. Many left the meeting right after, but those who stuck around voted 265-158 to actually adopt the higher spending plan. (Amending and adopting warrants requires two separate votes.)

The education tax rate is projected to go down 95 cents next year, which is about $238 less on a $250,000 home.

From the floor, residents also green-lit a proposal to vote on the school administrative unit’s budget directly. As is typical in multi-district SAUs, SAU 53’s budget is approved by the SAU board and then assessed to member districts on a per-pupil basis.

For now, the vote is only symbolic – a similar measure would have to also be approved in Epsom, Deerfield, Chichester and Allenstown in order for a new system to actually be put in place. Such a proposal is not on the ballot this year in those towns.

Residents also narrowly approved a $3,600 plan to videotape and livestream school board meetings, voting 106-98 for the measure.

From the floor, they nixed a proposal to add two seats to the Pembroke school board. And after the petitioner, Steve Donovan, said he didn’t support them anymore, they also tabled two articles establishing a committee to study the contract which governs tuitioning to Pembroke Academy between four SAU 53 towns.

Other than deciding a school board and treasurer’s race, Pembroke will have to decide on another outstanding school district matter during Tuesday’s elections.

A petitioned article on the ballot Tuesday would convert the district’s annual meeting to an SB 2 format. Another petitioned article would give the budget committee – instead of the school board – the responsibility for building a “default budget,” which is the budget that’s put in place when a budget warrant fails in an SB 2 scenario.

Budget committee chairman Mark LePage said the committee wasn’t formally taking a position on SB 2, but that its members had significant concerns about being responsible for a default budget. A recent lawsuit, he said, underscored the potential legal liabilities of asking budget committees to do so. And the budget committee isn’t privy to certain confidential information – especially surrounding special education students – that they might need to build the default budget, he argued.

“So there’s a lot of problems with this from the budget committee’s perspective,” he said.

The meeting ended with an impassioned plea by Tom Petit, Pembroke’s longtime moderator, not to adopt an SB 2 form of voting. That format stifles real debate, Petit argued, and discourages in-depth participation.

“This system, to me, is the only system,” he said.

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