Teachers contract defeated in Pittsfield – again

  • Ronald Tyrell of Pittsfield casts his ballot during a special school district election at the Pittsfield Town Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • The sign outside Pittsfield Town Hall is seen on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • A vote here sign is seen outside Pittsfield Town Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, September 20, 2017

By just nine votes, Pittsfield has again said no to giving its teachers a contract.

Voters defeated a one-year deal for educators in a special election Tuesday, 194-185. Residents had previously cast their ballots against a three-year deal in March by a similarly narrow margin.

Bea Douglas, the school board vice chairwoman who led negotiations for the district, said she was “extremely disappointed” in the outcome.

The school district also voted in March to switch over to an SB 2 form of voting. Douglas said she worried that played into Tuesday’s outcome because school officials hadn’t had the chance to address misinformation floating around before the vote took place.

“This was my fear with the SB 2 – where we couldn’t have people in front of us asking us questions and being able to answer them,” she said. “I mean, we lost by nine votes. I understand the tax problem. But I don’t understand what happened today. I’m sad. I’m really sad.”

The small district, which graduates fewer than 30 students each year, has done some heavy lifting to reform in recent years. Once one of the lower-performing districts in the state, Pittsfield has received national press lately for its experiments in competency-based education.

A property-poor town, Pittsfield has also long struggled to raise enough money to fund its schools. A small tax base has resulted in a double-bind for the district: It has one of the highest tax rates in New Hampshire, but pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries among educators in the state. The low pay – which has contributed to high turnover – and regular budget cuts have at times gotten in the way of the progress, officials have said.

Bridget Abbott, a resident who voted no on Tuesday, said the schools have made gains. But she also said it came at too high a price.

“I think we’re not capable of affording what they’re asking for. It’s a small school district and we’re paying huge taxes for that,” she said. “We’re starting to see things turn around in the education system here, but it’s too much money.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Manter, a mother of two students at Pittsfield elementary, cast a yes vote Tuesday.

“People keep complaining about property values and how things are rough around here,” she said. “But if we don’t give our kids an education, it’s really going to spiral. Because nobody’s going to want to come get a subpar education with subpar teachers. And that’s what we’re going to start attracting if we don’t start treating them better.”

Schools in poorer communities tend to pay their teachers less than in more affluent towns, and Pittsfield, where more than half of students are on free or reduced-price lunch, is a prime example. The average teacher there took home $41,459 in 2016 – the statewide average was $57,522.

Voters passed the school’s budget in March, but barely. The $10.1 million budget required an estimated $2.49 increase on the tax rate – and getting rid of eight teaching positions. District officials pointed to cuts in state funding, unexpectedly high special education costs and spiking health care premiums for staffers. The state has pulled back on both special education aid and extra money to property-poor towns in recent years.

The proposal before voters would have extended the concondition of last year’s contract an extra year. District officials had warned that because of hikes in health insurance and retirement contributions, a no vote would mean a cut in take-home pay for teachers. The deal would have cost the town an extra $66,485, for a projected tax impact of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Turnout on Tuesday was less than 14 percent of Pittsfield’s 2,735 registered voters. But moderator Gerard LeDuc said that turnout was unexpectedly high for a special election.

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