Few voters turn out to finalize Keene School District warrant

empty room

Original Keene Sentinel Article here:

After a sparsely attended deliberative session Saturday, two petition warrant articles will go onto the Keene School District’s ballot with significant amendments.

A range of other proposals, including a collective bargaining agreement for principals and supervisors and appropriations for building maintenance and special education reserve funds, will appear on the ballot as proposed.

Though 77 registered voters attended the session — about 0.4 percent of the district’s 17,855 registered voters — a few vocal individuals seemed to dominate discussion Saturday morning.

Early in the meeting, two amendments to the district’s $66,661,091 operating budget were proposed, but ultimately voted down. The proposed budget is up 0.6 percent from the $66,150,293 budget voters approved last year.

The first amendment, proposed by Keene resident and former Keene High football coach John Luopa, would have added $311,425 to the operating budget, with the funds intended for step increases for teachers.

The Keene Board of Education and the teachers union failed to reach a new contract agreement this year, and in the absence of a new agreement, the previous teachers contract reached four years ago will remain in effect beyond its set expiration, on June 30.

A few board members, including Kris Roberts, George Downing and Susan Hay, opposed the amendment, noting that any potential step increase should ideally be reached through a collective bargaining process.

Downing also clarified that though voters have the power to add funds to the proposed budget at the deliberative session, they don’t have the power to restrict what those funds would be used for.

On a secret ballot vote, the amendment failed, 40-18.

A second amendment to the operating budget was proposed by Conan Salada, a Keene resident and former candidate for state representative and Keene City Council, to decrease the operating budget by $410,796, to match the previous operating budget. Salada argued that the district’s spending per student is too high.

“It shouldn’t cost that much to educate our youth for what is basically daycare. The amount of money being spent, a quarter million dollars for the life of a kid, we should be turning out engineers, rocket scientists, doctors,” Salada said. “And yet half of these kids probably couldn’t pass an entrance exam in the local college.”

Salada’s amendment also failed, with a vote of 54-14, and the proposed operating budget was moved to the district’s ballot as written.

The issue of per-pupil expenditure came up again in discussion of the first of three petition warrant articles Salada submitted, which proposed committing the school district to reducing its average per-student operating expense by $500 every year until it matches the statewide average.

In the 2016-17 school year, the district’s average spending per pupil was $106, or 0.7 percent, above the average for the state.

Hay noted this and said the district has made significant progress in reducing its per-student costs.

“For the life of me I can’t figure out why you would want to restrict the board when they are within $100 of the average. That is essentially at average,” she said.

Theodore Parent, a Keene resident and local attorney, proposed an amendment to that article that would create a study committee to determine whether the policy should be instituted.

When that motion failed on a vote of 37-34, Parent proposed an amendment specifying that the district would reduce its per-student average to no more than 110 percent of — or 10 percent above — the state average, rather than matching it.

“I think the entire idea of petitioned Article VIII is ill-conceived, and this is the best way to make sure it doesn’t have a bad effect on district,” he said.

Salada, along with a few other members of the public, objected that a small percentage of Keene’s population was represented Saturday, and by amending a petition warrant article, they would be preventing a more representative body of voters from considering the article as intended.

“By the time it gets to them, the people of Keene, these petitioned warrant articles have been gutted in such a way that they’re meaningless,” said Salada. “They’re nullified.”

Parent’s second motion passed by secret ballot, 45-30, and the article will appear on the ballot in March as amended.

A second petition article submitted by Salada was also ultimately amended. As written, the article would have placed a 1-percent cap on year-to-year school district property tax increases. Parent again proposed an amendment, moving to raise the cap to a 15-percent increase.

Voters approved Parent’s amendment 42-30 by secret ballot.

Though Salada’s third petition article could not be amended, it did draw significant debate. The article proposes to rescind RSA 40:13 — otherwise known as SB2 — which would switch the Keene School District from using an official-ballot vote to a traditional town meeting-style vote.

Proponents of the article said it could help bring a more representative body of voters to the process. Those opposed, including Downing, the school board’s chairman, said that changing the format would be unlikely to increase participation.

“I have been, since I was sitting out there amongst you, always been disappointed that we only get 70 to 80 people at this meeting. Likewise, I’m disappointed at the turnouts for virtually every election held in this state, in this city, in this country,” said Downing. “We don’t participate; we just don’t. I fail to see how changing this city to a town hall version brings more people out.”

As the article could not be amended, discussion continued for several minutes before the moderator accepted a motion to adjourn at about 11 a.m.

Keene voters will consider all 10 measures on the warrant in yes-or-no votes at the ballot box on March 13.

Meg McIntyre can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or mmcintyre@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MMcIntyreKS.

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