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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Board members asked for review of decade-old votes after kindergarten plan fails

LITCHFIELD – School Board members recently reviewed their overarching approach to creating and changing district programs, essentially examining how they represent taxpayers and determine the cost of local education.

The School Board last week asked for legal interpretation of two non-binding voter referendums from last decade that laid out a path elected officials should consider following when contemplating the hiring of staff, expanding programs and buying equipment.

Asking the School District attorney for that opinion was, in many ways, an examination of how board members make decisions – whether voters have empowered them to act on their behalf with discretion, or whether every single spending measure should be reviewed by taxpayers.

Attorney Gordon Graham, who represents the district, said in a letter that even though some residents believe they should have direct review of every new spending measure, School Board members still have the authority to establish programs and create new positions within the district operating budget instead of proposing them as separate ballot questions.

This legal review came about after the board recently saw its proposal to expand the hours of kindergarten rejected by the municipal Budget Committee.

The board last month approved making kindergarten an all-day program for 16 children and placed the $50,586 measure into its proposed operating budget for next school year.

But the Budget Committee, which has final say on municipal budget proposals, removed the funding for the kindergarten measure, saying it should not have appeared in the operating budget with dozens of others spending items.

In denying the measure, a wide majority of committee members told the board that taxpayers – in separate petition warrant articles in 2003 and 2004 – had asked for direct review of any new position or program through individualized ballot questions.

The board later decided not to place the expansion plan on the ballot as a separate ballot question, and instead will review the idea over the next year.

Board members asked Graham for a legal interpretation of the two petition warrant articles from last decade, to see what weight they carry when the board considers any additions to programs and staffing.

Graham said that in 2003, voters expressed only “support” for placing new programs and new hires on the ballot as separate questions outside the operating budget. This petition warrant article is not binding, Graham said.

The same non-binding standard applies to the 2004 petition warrant article that called for spending to meet minimum state and federal standards, he said.

“Even if voters had the authority to restrict the creation of new programs, the expression of support for a particular statement is not binding on the board,” Graham wrote. “In short, the remedy for voters who are unhappy with decisions made by the board is to elect different board members.”

State law places the “responsibility of the elected board to manage the school district to the best of their ability,” Graham added.

Several board members said they appreciate and understand the message voters sent with those two petition articles. But they also said the responsibilities of the board requires them to sometimes make decisions on behalf of taxpayers.

“I believe we ought to try to do whatever we can to stay within the spirit of what voters were asking at the time,” board member John York said. Yet, moments will arise when the board needs to make decisions on its own, he said.

York said he can’t take the stance that he will always abide by the two petition articles, just as he can’t hold the position that he will never follow them.

Like fellow first-year member York, Mary Prindle said she wasn’t aware of the 2003 and 2004 petition articles when she supported putting kindergarten expansion in the operating budget. District administrators will now make the board aware of prior votes, she said.

The kindergarten proposal “clearly was an expansion of a program that we should bring before voters,” Prindle said.

“The voters have spoken” with the two petition articles, and Prindle got the message that some matters deserve closer scrutiny as ballot questions, she said.

But “I don’t think it’s practical to say every new addition or program” should be a ballot question, she said. “That could mean 100 warrant articles.”

Prindle says taxpayers didn’t elect her to serve and then constantly “turn back to them and say, ‘What do you want?’”

Board Chairman Dennis Miller agreed that voters entrust elected officials to make many decisions on their behalf. Nothing is hidden from voters; they can remove unwanted individual items in the operating budget at Deliberative Session, he said.

“There’s always a gray area. Governing bodies need some flexibility in how they present budgets,” Miller said. “You’re not going to always put everything in the operating budget, and you’re not going to always put everything as a separate article.”

Miller added that “the people are the owners of the school but they elected this set of people to manage the affairs of the district in the manner they see best.”

Board member Cindy Couture didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Jason Guerrette appears to be the only member to call for the board to completely follow the intent of the two petition articles. Voters should see all new and enhanced programs and new hires as individual ballot questions, he said.

“You have the right to come to Election Day in March … and fill in as many votes as you want or not,” Guerrette said. “If I line up 10 articles to review, you can choose to answer 10, one or none at all.”

With the two petition articles from last decade, “The town voted overwhelmingly, ‘We want that choice,’” Guerrette said. The board is bound by those votes, he said.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com.