Friday, September 23, 2016

High School Parents Corralled for Middle School Hard Sell

It was Open House at the high school yesterday.  Parents who got to the auditorium at 5:30 were treated to an incredible half-hour concert by the kids, amazingly pulled together by Mr. LaForce, Mr. Ervin and Ms. von Oeyen in just a couple of weeks.  But after it ended, there were still a few words to be had from our sponsor.

A video of Mr. Sullivan pushing a cart around the middle school started to play.  I thought it was some kind of comic relief.   Most of the audience retook their seats.

At this point, everyone was expecting the following:
Superintendent Morse: Thanks so much for coming out parents and students.  It's a tribute to how much our district cares about education that so many of you are here.  This open house is special, because I have the honor of introducing our fantastic new principal, Suzanne Filippone.  I could spend more time telling you how wonderful she is, but I hear what you're thinking so I'm just going to turn the microphone right over to her.
Principal Filippone:  Thank you, Dr. Morse.  Thank you, everyone. It's so wonderful to see you all here tonight.  It's been great getting to know your children this month, and I look forward to getting to know all of you.  This year is all about learning for me as well.  I hope you'll come to me with any concerns or questions you might have, or just to chat.  School is off to a great start, and we're really proud to offer you this glimpse into your children's high school experience.  I'll be around and I hope to meet you all.   Enjoy the open house.

We didn't get anything like that.  The principal didn't seem to be anywhere in sight.  After the overlong video finished, the superintendent got up and explained what we were seeing.  Apparently it takes many minutes to push the computer cart from one end of the building to the other, including a stint outside.  It's an old, pieced-together building.  Therefore, dear taxpayers, we need to have a "conversation" about building a new middle school.

The audience was nonplussed.  They had come to meet the new principal and their kid's teachers.  Now they were stuck in a timeshare pitch.  It happened so fast.  Folks started looking around, wondering if they could leave.  A fair number did.

I was thinking why the heck start with parents whose kids just finished middle school?   All they'll care about is the tax hike in store for them.  And why an ambush almost guaranteed to engender bad feelings toward the project?  And where in the world is the principal?  Trying to hide far away from this awful scene, no doubt.

I usually admire the superintendent's political savvy, but not last night.  The pitch dragged on until nearly 7 pm. [I've since been told by some board and administration folks that the pitch only went 20 minutes, to 6:30.  I apologize for the error.]  Some folks were genuinely angry.  Finally we hostages were released.  You can keep my cruise discounts.

The rest of the open house went well, though now that I think about it I don't recall seeing the principal.  [A few people have assured me the principal was cheerily there throughout the open house.]

I was at the board meeting when they discussed using the open houses as occasions to address the public, given the large audiences.  It's seemed like a good idea to me at the time.  I had no idea how ghastly it would turn out.

I know the middle school open house is next week.  I'm not sure if the elementary school ones have occurred.  Be warned, people.  Save yourselves.

The board and administration seem to be screwing up the Start Time issue too.  It's all coming to a boil soon, but I'll save that for my next post.

Don't forget that tomorrow, Saturday Sept 24, 2016, is official opening day for the new ORHS field, with festivities starting at 9 am and games all day.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Unprotected Sex, Gang Fights, Free Lunch

I couldn't pass up the lurid headline.

Unprotected Sex

The 2016 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is in.  This year we should have two reports: ORHS and ORMS.  As far as I can tell the reports are not yet available to us directly, but we did get a little tidbit at the June 15 school board meeting: Board member Barth reported 60% of ORHS students are having unprotected sex.  She suggested the European approach of condom vending machines in the bathrooms.  Here's the clip.

Gang Fights

OK, this is hype.  Really there was only one fight, between two kids.

According to news reports and gossip, on the night of Friday June 3rd, two groups totaling about 20 high school kids gathered at Margery Milne Park near Faculty Rd. in Durham to watch a fight between two students, one from each group.  One of the students was beaten so severely he is reported to be in the hospital "with life-threatening injuries."  The organizing was reportedly done over social media.

A few parents showed up at the June 15 meeting to make a public comment about the fight.  There was some sentiment that the school didn't react quickly enough, with a schoolwide auditorium on the Monday after the event.

When I first heard about the incident, I didn't like that the superintendent seemed to be distancing the school from the fight, saying it was a police matter and involved students from different schools.  By the time of the school board meeting the superintendent had come around 180 degrees on this, which was better.  (He distanced himself from the distancing, which felt disingenuous to me.)  Clip: the start of board meeting that addressed the fight.

I've seen my share of fist fights growing up.  If one of the participants stayed down and stopped fighting it was over.  Nobody got seriously hurt.

I don't see how we get life-threatening injuries in a fist fight without some sadistic stuff going on.  I'm talking about continuing to hurt someone after you know they're unable to defend themselves.  A crowd of our kids were watching this and didn't stop it.  For all I know they were cheering them on.

It's also amazing to me that there could be widespread dissemination of a fight on social media and not one person who knew about it notified the authorities.  Someone told me (rumor alert) that there were adults who knew about it and failed to report it.

More rumors: I've been told that these were all Durham kids involved, though the victim no longer attends Oyster River.  I've been told this was jocks versus nerds.  I've been told this was haves versus have-nots.   I was told the beater was a well known drug dealer from a prominent merchant family.  I was told he was allowed to return to school with no consequence.

The whole thing makes me ill.  This and the unprotected sex makes me think I'm living in an entirely  different place than I thought I was.  I grew up in New York City and Oyster River felt like Mayberry R.F.D. to me.  But I was wrong.  There's some sick stuff going on here.

Free Lunch at ORMS this Summer

Apparently there is such a thing as a free lunch.  Starting Tuesday, any school age child who shows up at the ORMS cafeteria Monday through Thursday between 11:30 am and 1 pm will be given a free lunch.   Somehow Doris Demers has made this free lunch thing happen.  It would be really great if kids actually showed up to eat.  My boy will be there most days.

I think they'll serve anyone, but us folks over 18 will have to pay.

The free lunch program runs from July 5 to August 11.  Here's Todd Allen making the announcement: clip.

Start Time Workshop

The board held a workshop on the start time issue at the end of May.  As far as I can tell from the minutes, they're screwing the whole thing up. But it's hard to tell, because the minutes discuss six or seven options without ever saying what the options are.

It looks like the board doesn't want to consider plans where high school ends after 3:00.  That pushes the opening to 8:00, which is 30 minutes before the earliest recommended time.  Plus it looks like they don't want to move the elementary schools earlier so (I think) they're exploring busing everybody at once.   So as far as I can tell the vague plan right now is to make us pay for extra buses to get a start time that doesn't even meet the minimum recommended.

I think the right plan is Elementary 7:45 am to 2:25 pm,  Middle School / High School 8:45 am to 3:45 pm.

Local Heinemann Fellows

The Heinemann Fellowship is a prestigious national award given every few years to around a dozen teachers whose work advances the teaching profession. In 2016, Oyster River's own Chris Hall, a fifth grade  teacher at ORMS, was one of the recipients.  Incredibly, so was Durham's Ian Fleischer, a fifth grade teacher at New Franklin School in Portsmouth. I'm fortunate to know both of them pretty well.  If it's not coincidence enough that two of eleven national fellows were from Durham, Ian's son and my son both just finished fifth grade, where their teacher was Mr. Hall.  Small world.  Congratulations, Ian and Chris. (Report).

Multiage K-1 Approved

This fall Oyster River will offer full day Kindergarten for the first time.  The board authorized the superintendent to hire an additional teacher.  The plan is for the new teacher to teach K, and an existing teacher to teach a multiage classroom of Kindergarten and first graders together.  This is because both schools together have filled six Kindergarten classes to our class size capacity (18).  Any additional students will have to attend Mast Way in a seventh class.  Usually we get a few more enrollees over the summer.  Similarly, Mast Way's first grade classes are at or near capacity.  The combined K-1 class solves both problems, and the board approved it with some trepidation.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Congrats Principal Filippone, Football Fails, Field Lights Pass

It was a well-attended meeting tonight, with a packed agenda that included football, start times, field lights and a new principal.   The 13 public commenters were restricted to two minutes each.  I made my public comment and had to run to pick up my daughter, so I missed the first hour.  I'll update this post if I see anything interesting on the replay.

New ORHS Principal Suzanne Filippone

The school board approved Suzzane Filippone as the new principal of Oyster River High School.  Ms. Filippone has been Assistant Principal at Spaulding High School in Rochester since 2013.  Before that, she served four years as Dean of Students at Doane Stuart in Rensselaer, NY.

Ms. Filippone is a local -- high school at Berwick Academy, UNH grad, and she currently lives in the district.  She starts at Oyster River in July.

The process went quickly.  Former principal Todd Allen began his new role as Assistant Superintendent in January.   Advertising for the new principal began in February, with applications due March 12.  There were 27 applications, 16 judged complete, with 6 being selected by a leadership committee.  These six candidates were interviewed on March 22 by a large committee of administration, teachers, parents and a student.  I was fortunate to be part of the committee, which recommended two finalists to go forward.  A subset of the committee visited the schools of both finalists.  Both met with the student senate and faculty.  It's not clear to me how the final choice was made -- I'll guess the superintendent alone was responsible.

I signed a non-disclosure agreement, so I can't say much.  I will say that all six candidates were great, and I thought any of them would make a great principal of ORHS.  But we chose the best.  Congratulations, Principal Filippone.  Good luck in your new job.

Football Fails

At the previous meeting, Athletic Director Parker said that the board endorsing the cooperative implies the district supports a local team once the cooperative ends.   Before this revelation, the board was ready to approve the coop as a compromise that allowed students to play at Portsmouth HS without having to host a team at ORHS.

Tonight's discussion on the football coop went oddly, with member Howland immediately moving the cooperative issue be punted to the March 2017 voters.  This was amended to ask 2017 voters to approve "a football program" at Oyster River.  Members Klein and Rotner thought it was the board's decision, and shouldn't be passed to the voters.  The motion failed.

Member Day made the sensible motion to approve an application that is up front with the NHIAA that the district currently has no plans to proceed with football once the cooperative ends.  In other words, instead of punting to the voters, punt to the NHIAA.  Member Rotner, a physician, worried about medical concerns related to sudden decelerations.   Chairman Newkirk worried that the agreement will end after one year if the NHIAA moves to four divisions.  He also was concerned about Title IX costs.   Member Falwell worried a later start time will mean football players miss a lot of class.  Member Klein lamented the proposed agreement does not assure the kids a sustainable program they can invest themselves in.  The motion failed, with only Member Day voting in the affirmative.

I think it's unfortunate the kids really into football won't get to play.  My opinion is much of the problem is with the current agreement, mostly Portsmouth's intent to dissolve it as soon as they can, not with coop agreements in general.  Perhaps there will be better cooperative opportunities in the future.

Start Time Discussed

The issue of moving middle and high school start times to after 8:30 to accord with current research is heating up in the community.  I made a public comment suggesting the district collect data now, to determine both student sleep habits "before" and parent sentiment.  I also suggested a plan I call Swap60+15: Elem 7:45-2:25 MSHS 8:45-3:45.  Swap means elementary and high school starts are interchanged, 60 means 60 minutes between the start times (versus the current 75) and +15 means 15 additional minutes in the elementary school day.

The board decided to interview staff at each school and then have another workshop.  I love the staff, but didn't we survey them a couple of months ago?  (76% were in favor of change, not the 56.2% erroneously calculated.)  I'll guess some of them won't like having their schedule screwed with, and some of them will, but they'll all want to keep their jobs so will work the hours they have to.

It's the parents that are going to make the difference.   I think the board's determination of the parents' views will determine their votes.  It looks like opposition against the change is getting organized, with this petition circulating.  The debate tends to go on on the ORCSD School Start Time facebook page.

Field Ahead of Schedule, Lights Approved

Construction on the field commenced several weeks early.  The warm winter meant the ground was not frozen as expected.  This moves the expected completion date to the end of September from mid-October.  About a third of the current field is fenced off, with heavy equipment already digging out the drainage space under the new track and field.

In a surprise to me, the board approved spending excess fund balance on the lights for the field.   Business Administrator Caswell stated this will not decrease the amount of fund balance expected to be returned to the taxpayer.  The found money came from unexpectedly low health insurance costs and some budgeted salaries for positions vacant or filled at less cost than expected.

The issue came up when the contractor offered a $20,000 discount if the lights could be included in the initial construction. The lights, along with dugouts (I had previously written "bleachers" -- I'm not sure about them now), were not part of the proposal approved by the voters last month.  It was stated then that the expected $300,000 cost would be raised from community donations.  Members Barth and Farwell voted against, saying the ballot was clear and the vote recent, so this change will cause the board to lose credibility with the voters.  I expect funds for the dugouts will still be raised privately.

I have to side with Barth and Farwell on this one.   First of all, contractor utterances should be treated skeptically.  I wonder what would have happened if the board had voted themselves a $40,000 discount?

Next, the whole transaction is ill-thought out.  If my buddy wants to buy me a gift, it doesn't make any sense for me to tell him I can get it cheaper so I'll just buy it for myself.  I'm out all the money instead of getting a free gift, and my buddy never got to give me anything.  It really doesn't make sense when it's not my money I'm spending, but the taxpayers'.

Last, my pet peeve is when the board goes on a spending spree at year end with fund balance rather than returning the money to the taxpayers.  Member Day made the comment that the problem with returning the money to the taxpayers is that in two years taxes go up more than expected.    I don't really find the logic that I should pay more tax this year so I don't get a big shock next year particularly compelling.  I want the board to keep as tight a lid on spending as is reasonable every year.  Plus if they really want to smooth out tax increases, there's a reserve fund the voters authorized for that purpose in 2013.  The board could vote to put the money in that fund rather than blowing it on lights that someone else was going to pay for.

Other News

The district held a forum on grief and loss earlier in the week.  Member Barth stressed she hoped this would be first of many, and that district would focus on prevention and gun safety.

Full Day K enrollment is currently 53 Mast Way, 51 Moharimet.  Once 54 enroll at Moharimet, future enrollees will end up at Mast Way no matter where they live.  So if you want your kid to attend Moharimet Kindergarten, you better enroll them right away.

The 35 houses expected to be built at the west end of Hayes Rd. were assigned to the Mast Way school.   Neighboring elementary students on Hayes Rd. attend Moharimet.  The move is intended to aid equalization between the schools -- Moharimet is still overcrowded.  As the houses are yet to be built, there's no one to complain.

Next year's health insurance premium increase came in at 8%, a savings of $324K or .75% of the budget.  One of the budget shocks this year came when our insurers gave us budget guidance of a "guaranteed maximum" increase of 16%.  It turned out to be half that, which means more money in next year's fund balance for the board to blow.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

AD Spooks Board on Football Coop

This is a report on the March 16, 2016 school board meeting.

Coop Football with Portsmouth In Doubt

After tonight's board meeting, I'd say it's much less likely we will form a Divison 1 cooperative football team with Portsmouth High School.  This is because Athletic Director Parker confirmed that board approval of the NHIAA application for a cooperative team implies that the schools intend to form individual teams when conditions allow.

Until tonight's meeting, my reading of the board was they intended to approve the cooperative.  It seemed a great compromise.  ORHS kids who wanted could play football at PHS.  Oyster River High School doesn't host a team.  At the board's request, the agreement was redrafted to explicitly indicate no Oyster River money and no Oyster River insurance would be involved.  Several board members made statements indicating their vote for the cooperative did not imply they supported a team at Oyster River High School.  It was poised to pass.

Portsmouth has already said it intends to dissolve the cooperative when it can support a Division 2 team.  Apparently there is a possibility that NHIAA will add a fourth division soon, which would let Portsmouth have its wish.  We could be looking at just one season of cooperative football before we would be faced with the question of football at ORHS, to which the board will have already committed.

Three years ago, football at ORHS was addressed head on.  Having the field solves one problem. But it was clear then that the money, Title IX, and safety concerns added up to make approval impossible. Judging by tonight's discussion, that still seems to be the case.

About 10 people, mostly middle school students, spoke in favor of the football cooperative.  The students were very impressive.  It's really hard to stand and talk at that podium, especially the first time.  They all did great.  We should be very proud of these kids.

Actually, I thought the kids were more persuasive than the parents.  Former board member Krista Butts at times seemed to be scolding the board.  Coach Willie Ouellette seemed to belittle the board for tasking Athletic Director Parker to gather more information.  But ultimately the public comments didn't matter.

The only public comment against was from Dr. Bob Barth, who reiterated safety concerns.  But it was his wife, board member Maria Barth, who dealt the decisive blow.  Member Barth, like her husband, is known to be against football.  Before tonight, she was probably the only vote against the football cooperative.  She was the one who questioned AD Parker directly about the implications of board approval of the application.  To his credit, AD Parker answered forthrightly, even though his answer seriously damaged the prospects of a football program he supports.

Ms. Barth moved to get the issue off the board table and onto the March 2017 ballot, when the voters could decide.  No second was forthcoming.  At the time, football supporters were hoping for a quick approval that evening.  They might want to reconsider the ballot alternative in light of what happened.

Congratulations Chair Newkirk and Vice Chair Day

As this was the first meeting after the election, the board had to choose officers.   Newly reelected Tom Newkirk was unanimously voted Chair by the board.  This will be Tom's third term as Chair.  Denise Day was elected Vice Chair.  Al Howland, the former Vice Chair, said he wasn't interested remaining in the position because he was just elected to the Durham town council.

Congratulations to Superintendent Morse as well.  He got a 2.5% raise and his contract extended another year.

Congratulations to the new student member, a junior named Troy LaPolice.

Principal Search Progressing

The superintendent reported that a leadership committee has whittled the I believe 14 applications for high school principal down to six.  A committee of teachers, administrators and parents will interview the applicants next Tuesday.    After the interviews come site visits to the candidates' schools and reference checking.  The plan is to recommend two candidates to the board, and they make the ultimate choice.  It might get done by April 6.  We're early; nothing stops us from opening up the process again if none of the candidates is satisfactory.

I want to say a personal thank you to Superintendent Morse for his kind words when he announced I would be on the committee.  I can't say much more than that because they made me sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The principal job became vacant when Todd Allen was promoted to Assistant Superintendent.  Dean of Students Mike McCann currently serves as acting principal.

Start Time Process Lengthened

The board held a workshop on the start time issue last week (unusually detailed minutes from the superintendent).  I thought the intent was to come up with one or two detailed plans to frame the community discussion.   Instead, what came out of the meeting was a bunch of doubts about doing it at all.  There's now a plan to survey teachers, and they're talking about surveying parents as well.  Of course, it helps to have the possible plans in hand so you can ask about them in the survey, but they didn't generate any.

It's always seemed to me that it was the will of the board to get this one done.  Now I think whether it happens will depend on community sentiment. Here's the facebook group in favor.

Field Construction Commencing - Indoor Graduation June 10

The district isn't wasting any time getting started on the new field.  Assistant Superintendent Allen reported that there may be contractors on the current field within the next couple of weeks.

Acting Principal McCann announced graduation date is June 10, 2016.  The superintendent has committed to this date even with a serious storm expected on Monday.

There will be a meeting to discuss having graduation indoors.  Besides the usual weather concerns, field construction might interfere with outdoor plans.

Middle School Buy In

Member Barth stated that it was time to seriously bring up the issues surrounding the middle school with the community.  Some board members are looking at architectural drawings for a new school while most of the public knows nothing about the upcoming expense.  Stay tuned for more about this.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Field Passes!

ORHS Will Get Its New Track and Field

In a surprise to many, article 3, the $1.5M ORHS Track and Field Bond, passed with 68% voting YES.  This greatly exceeded the 60% needed to pass the bond.  Article 5, which authorizes the district to sell some land and put the proceeds toward the field, and article 6, which puts $500,000 of fund balance into the field fund, also passed.  Congratulations to the supporters on a successful campaign.

The idea (and fund) to build an Oyster River track is over twenty years old.   Similar bonds have failed to reach 60% four times in the past. The board, the administration, and the supporters deserve a lot of credit for succeeding where many have failed before.  I believe the plan is to do the bulk of the construction over the summer, but I'm sure Assistant Superintendent Todd Allen and Athletic Director Corey Parker will get started immediately.

The vote was YES 1786,  NO 831.  That's a total of 2617 votes.  That exceeds the 2529 from last year's field bond, which failed with 54.6% voting YES.  This is surprising too -- I've been hearing reports, and witnessed firsthand, a relatively light day at the polls.  It was a beautiful day to be out holding a sign, with sunny skies and low 50s.

With the $400K fund balance from article 3, $500K from article 6, likely $300K from article 5, and a previous track fund of $300K, that's $1.5M.  Given that haul, it's possible the district may bond less than the full $1.5M that passed.  Since the field costs $2.3M,  the district can bond as little as $800K. I'll guess it's more likely they'll bond all or near the full amount, and put the excess toward capital maintenance projects, which they are authorized to do.

Congratulations Tom Newkirk and Kenny Rotner

In a result that surprised no one at all, Chair Tom Newkirk and Board Member Kenny Rotner were resoundingly reelected to the Oyster River School Board.  They are sentenced to three more years of hard labor.  Congratulations, Tom and Kenny.

Margaret Redhouse got a rather startling 635 votes.  I'm guessing there are not many ORCSDcleanslate readers among those. 

Oyster River School District Results

I'll reproduce the School District results here -- thanks to Todd Selig and Durham.  Mistakes in the percentages are my fault.

ARTICLE 1:  SCHOOL MODERATOR (Vote for not more than one)

Richard Laughton      2043     ELECTED

ARTICLE 2: SCHOOL BOARD AT LARGE (Vote for not more than two)

Thomas Newkirk     1670    88%    ELECTED
Kenneth Rotner       1488    78%     ELECTED
Margaret Redhouse   635    33%

Percentages calculated assuming total adds to 200%.

ARTICLE 3: Shall the District raise and appropriate the sum of $1.9 million for the renovation and construction of athletic fields and a track at Oyster River High School, and to authorize the issuance of not more than $1.5 million of bonds or notes … ? (A 3/5 (60%) ballot vote required)

YES 1786  68%     PASSED
NO    831   32%

ARTICLE 4: Shall the district vote to approve the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the Oyster River Educational Support Personnel Association (ORESPA) and the Oyster River School Board? (Majority vote required)

YES 1985    77%      PASSED
NO     581    23%

ARTICLE 5: Shall the district authorize the School Board to sell the 24.97 acre lot on Orchard Drive in Durham and put the proceeds ... in the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund? (Majority vote required)

YES   2097   82%      PASSED
NO      464   18%

ARTICLE 6: Shall the School District . . . vote to raise and appropriate the up to $500,000 to be added to the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund? (Majority vote required)

YES 1996     80%      PASSED
NO     496     20%

ARTICLE 7: Shall the District establish a non-lapsing Equipment Revolving Fund . . . for the purpose of providing equipment to students in need? (Majority vote required)

YES 2228   89%     PASSED
NO    275    11%

ARTICLE 8: Shall the District raise and appropriate . . . an operating budget . . . totaling $42,303,815? Should this article be defeated, the default budget shall be $40,892,769. (Majority vote required)

YES    1695    69%     PASSED
NO        771    31%

A total of 2670 school district ballots were cast.

Town Results

Everything went our way in Lee.  The Lee Sustainability Committee passed overwhelmingly.  Congratulations to Paul Gasowski and his team.  The Tibbetts Road gating and closing was defeated as a result of a very successful campaign by John and Anne Tappan.  Congratulations.  Raw Lee Results.

Al Howland got the most number of votes for town council in Durham, so is one of the three councilors elected.  Congratulations to Al, Wayne Burton (who I should have endorsed) and Allen Bennett, who I don't know.  Raw Durham and Oyster River Results.

I didn't make any recommendations in Madbury, but here are the Raw Madbury Results.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Voting Guide for the 2016 Oyster River Cooperative School District Election

ORCSDcleanslate busy voter guide: Vote for Kenny Rotner (website) and Tom Newkirk for school board.  The third candidate doesn't actually want the job.  I'm voting YES on all the articles; if you don't want to spend $2.3M on the field, vote NO on #3, and maybe even NO on #6 and #5 as well, as the capital fund mentioned can also be used to fund the field.  Please vote YES on the #8, the $42.3M budget appropriation.  The board kept the budget tight this year; if NO wins and we get the default budget, taxpayers save a whopping $58,000, about a seventh of a percent.

News From Tonight's Meeting:  The board approved a two-year agreement for Oyster River and Portsmouth to form a cooperative high school girls ice hockey team, hosted by Oyster River.  Approval by NHIAA is expected by May.  Approximately three to five Portsmouth players will join ORHS's team next year for a team size of around 16.  The hope is in two years Portsmouth and Oyster River can each support a team of their own and the coop would then not be renewed.  The decision on the proposed football coop hosted by Portsmouth was put off until the next meeting.

Town Voting Notes.

ORCSDcleanslate asks Lee voters to vote YES on Lee article 3, the Lee Sustainability Committee. Paul Gasowski did a great job starting the Oyster River Sustainability Committee, eventually leading to energy savings of over $100,000 annually, and we're hoping he'll work similar magic in Lee.  Also please vote NO on Lee article 18 and keep Tibbits Road the way it is, instead of gating and closing it so UNH can sell it.  It seems there's nothing in it for us to change, at Deliberative Session the vote was unanimous against, Barrington has indicated it will ask for compensation if it passes, and some selectman are trying to withdraw their recommendation (too late).  The only YES argument I've heard is maybe the buyer will commercially develop that spot, which would be a boon to Lee taxpayers.  But if that's what Lee wants, we can do better than "maybe."

ORCSDcleanslate asks Durham voters to vote for current ORCSD vice chair Al Howland for Durham town council.

Election Guide

This is my annual guide to the 2016 Oyster River School District election. I call it a biased guide because in addition to (I hope fairly) explaining each warrant article, I tell you how I'm going to vote and why, which is the biased part. For each question, I'll write a bit and sometimes provide links to previous posts for those interested in digging deeper.

Voting Information

Election day in Oyster River is this Tuesday, March 8th. If you're a US citizen over 18 who lives in Lee, Madbury or Durham, you can just show up on Tuesday at your town's polling place and vote. Like almost all elections in New Hampshire, same day registration is available. So even if you've never voted or registered to vote in New Hampshire before, you can vote Tuesday. It's easier if everyone brings a state photo ID and if new registrants also bring proof of address (a utility bill), but under New Hampshire's voter ID law you can vote even if don't bring those.

Your polling place and voting times depend on where you live:

Durham:   Oyster River High School 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Lee:          Public Safety Complex 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Madbury: Town Hall 11:00 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.

As always, voters in each town are given identical school district ballots. Let's go through the ballot questions, also known as the warrant articles.

Article 1 elects the district moderator.  As far as I can tell, the only real duty of the moderator is to run the deliberative session in February.  (I often see Mr. Laughton running between polling places on election day, so the moderator may have some responsibilities then as well.)   For as long as I've been paying attention it's been Richard Laughton, and as he's the only one running, the trend will continue.

Article 2 elects two of seven school board members.   Dr. Kenny Rotner (website) has been on the board for three years, and also serves on the Durham Town Council.  Dr. Tom Newkirk has been on the board for the last four years and currently serves as Chair.  I think Tom and Kenny have done a great job since taking over from the bad Brackett board, and I am very happy to vote for them both for reelection.

Ms. Redhouse is the newcomer.  She announced on Candidates Night that she wasn't intending to get elected and that her goal was to use the platform to publicize her concerns about Lyme Disease. Given that only seven members of the public showed up on Candidates Night and the district doesn't seem to have bothered to post the video apparently my blog mentions are about the only publicity she got, so I'd say she failed. I don't want to condone this sort of appropriation of the election process, so I'm hoping she gets zero votes. We should really punish her by electing her, but let's not. 

[Update 3/6: Here's the oddly-located YouTube link, thanks to Michael Williams and Josh Olstad.  I cued it up to start at Ms. Redhouse's impassioned advocacy of teaching cursive, something I failed to note in my previous report.]

Article 3 is what I've breezily referred to as the field bond.  I've been writing about the field for a couple of years now, but I'll try to start from the basics here. 

Currently, we have a grass field behind the high school.  That's the ideal anyway; in practice, the field is often lots of packed dirt (or mud) without all that much grass due to overuse.  We'd need at least twice the space to use only a portion of the fields while the grass grows back on the rest, which is the suggested practice for natural grass fields.   From all the woods around the school you might think that the district could purchase the space, but attempts have failed to uncover opportunities to expand the school's footprint at an acceptable price.

The solution is to install an artificial turf track and field over about a third of the current field area. The artificial field can support virtually continuous play of all field sports, about four times the utility of the same size grass field, with faster recovery after snow and rain.  The grass sports fields on the remaining two-thirds of the land will be reoriented for safety reasons, but the bulk of the cost and work is the construction of the artificial turf track and field.
The proposed new track and field in context

An example of an artificial turf track
and field at Southwest Minnesota State.
Click to enlarge
This is largely the same proposal that lost last year with 54.6% of the vote.  (State law requires a 60% supermajority to pass a bond.)  The main differences between this year and last year:  The amount bonded has gone down from $1.7M to $1.5M, a product called EPDM has been substituted for the potentially harmful rubber tire crumb infill, and the price increased by $300K to $2.3M due to the new infill.

One source of the $800K needed in addition to the bond is the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Expendable Trust Fund.  The important thing to remember here is the same fund is funded in articles #5 and #6 (without the words "Expendable Trust" which may be an editing error).  So if you support the field, vote YES on those too. 

There was a fair amount of marketing effort this year.  I see "vote yes on 3" signs around town.  At most evening events there have been some pro-field folks giving out literature.  I haven't seen much aimed at voters who aren't the parents of schoolchildren, and those folks are the ones that need to be won over.  Hopefully some marketing effort was spent there.

Similar field bonds have failed four times in the past, each time getting above 50% but failing to reach 60%.   The voters were in a kind of grumpy, no spending mood last year (see, for example, the Lee Library vote) and 54.6% YES wasn't really all that close to the 60% needed (136 NO voters of 2529 total voters would need to switch their votes to YES).   The supporters are hoping the presumably safer infill, lower bond amount, and the vote YES campaign will get us over 60%.

All board members support the new field.  The budget discussion started this year with an attempt to fund the field without a bond, which would only require 50% taxpayer support (if it was on the ballot at all, 1 2 3).  But a couple of budget shocks related to health insurance made this impractical and we were back to the bond.  

The board discussion about whether to include essentially the same losing bond proposal as last year on the ballot again was interesting.  Member Barth expressed the concern that another failure on election day would be detrimental to the cause.   Chairman Newkirk voiced his support for inclusion by channeling Ken Kesey: "You're either on the bus or off the bus."  I thought that was ironically apt; you must be tripping if you think the fifth time's the charm.

One reason to try to get this passed sooner rather than later is that there are big middle school expenses on the horizon, with talk of possibly building a whole new school.  I suppose the fear is that paying for a big ticket item like a school would shove aside luxuries like a field.  On the other hand, every haberdasher knows it's easier to sell shirts and ties after the customer chooses a suit, as the additional money seems relatively small. Maybe if all else fails, the field will get tacked on to the new middle school construction project.

One of the more ludicrous arguments the district makes is about all the money we'll save by having our own field.  They came up with a few thousand in rental fees for other fields and a few more thousand for fertilizer and transportation and maybe some other stuff I'm not recalling.  They even dangled the possibility of field income -- others renting our field.  I haven't seen it added all up, but if it generously comes to $20,000 a year, that means the field pays for itself in a quick 115 years.   That's not even counting the cost of maintenance that the new field would require.  The field is a shiny new toy we want for our kids; trying to spin it as cost savings just makes me doubt the district's credibility on other matters.

Back of the envelope, a $1.5M 10 yr bond works out to $150K annual principal and say $30K interest, which is about a 0.5% increase in your taxes for the next ten years.

I'm voting YES because, as much as I'd rather avoid paying for it, a top high school needs a commensurate athletic facility.  The fields we have now are kind of embarrassing.

I think it's pretty likely if you support football at ORHS you're a YES vote for the field.  One reason to vote NO is that it looks like at the board meeting tonight the district will enter into a cooperative agreement with Portsmouth High to allow Oyster River kids to play football on Portsmouth's Division 1 team.  [Update 3/3: this decision was postponed to March 16.]  Portsmouth has already voiced its intent to end the agreement as soon as its enrollment falls to the point it can play in Division 2.  At that point, there's going to be pressure to field a football team at ORHS, which is going to be a lot easier to do if there's a big artificial turf field on the premises.

Article 4 ratifies the contract the board negotiated with ORESPA.  The board and ORESPA, the custodians and secretaries union, agreed to a first-year raise of 1.5%, second year 2.25% and third year 2.5%.  I'm voting YES.

Just to be clear, the dollar amounts in the article are not individual salaries or anything like that.  Each number is the total additional money (as compared to the previous year) needed to pay the combined raises for all secretaries and custodians.

I'm always surprised that 20-40% of the voters vote NO on these contracts.  The board has kept, and continues to keep a pretty tight lid on the raises, which are running at close to the cost of living.

Article 5 asks the voters for permission to sell a donated parcel of land and put the proceeds (likely in the $275K - $400K range) in the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund.  Despite the slightly mismatched names, this is the same fund as the one referred to in article 3.  This is important, because even though this article doesn't spell it out in the explanation, the money in this fund can go toward the new field.  Since there's no bond, the article itself only needs 50% to pass.  So, if you support the field, vote YES here.  That's what I'm doing.

If you don't support the field, this is a more difficult question.  The money won't necessarily go to the field; it can be used for other facilities development.  This article and the next are what's left of the original plan to fund the field without a bond.  The three articles are written in a way such that if they all pass, all the money can go toward building the field immediately, but if only articles 5 and 6 pass (more likely as they only require 50%) we can bank the money and try similar articles next year, which if passed should be enough to build the field.

The district explored possible uses for the land, which is on Orchard Drive off of Mill Road in Durham.  They couldn't find any good uses for the land, which is mostly wetlands, and decided to sell.  I think it was John Parsons at the deliberative session who pointed out that voters around 8 years ago had already given the district permission to sell the parcel.  I was surprised to hear this and haven't tried to verify it.  I think the board members and administration were surprised to hear it as well.  Presumably 8 years ago there was nothing about the Facilities Fund, so it still makes sense to go ahead with this article.

Article 6 asks the voters to put aside $500K to add to the Facilities fund.   As previously discussed, even though it's not mentioned in the explanation, this money can go toward purchasing the new field.  So if you're voting YES on article 3, you should vote YES here too. The fund balance is the money the voters appropriated last election day that the district didn't get around to spending.  I'm voting YES.

The main thing that bothers me about this article is the sentence "No amount to be raised by taxation."  While not exactly a lie, this is quite misleading spin.  The fund balance, being the leftover money, was largely raised from taxation this past year.  A NO win means the funds will be returned to the taxpayers, lowering the coming year's tax bills.  The fund balance isn't some magic way to pay for things without impact; a YES win requires an additional $500K from the taxpayers.  Even though it's boilerplate marketing, the "no amount raised ..." spin still annoys me.

Article 7 implements the plan of selling old equipment for funds to provide needy students with new technology.  This seems a pretty good way to help the underprivileged students.  At an initial appropriation of $1 and a maximum of $2,000, this has essentially no impact on taxes.  I'm voting YES.

Article 8 is, of course, the main budget article, asking the voters to spend $42.3M on schools.  I'm voting YES.

About 1/3 of this money comes from non-local tax revenue (mostly state education tax and grants, as well as federal grants and tuition and food income). The remaining 2/3 is apportioned among the towns and their property owners and goes into determining the local school tax rate for each town.

A NO vote activates the Default Budget. The Default Budget replaces Fund 10, and thus a NO win lowers spending by about $60,000, a tiny 0.15%.   The closeness of the operating budget and the default budget is an indication of how tight the board kept the increases this year.  The default budget by law is the amount needed to honor existing contracts without any new spending.  As the article states, rather than accept the Default Budget the board can try to get the voters to pass another one.  

The district of late has been setting and meeting budget goals at around inflation (zero real growth). This is extra impressive because school costs generally rise much faster than the broad inflation rate. I am very pleased and proud that this year the board adopted some of my ideas about more honest budget metrics, especially by including the other warrant articles and revenue in its board goals.   The board deserves extra credit in the difficult budget year, when, in two jolts, budgeted health insurance costs rose $1M.  (We budget using a "guaranteed maximum" provided by our insurers; actual premium costs may come in less.)

There was still a bit of a fracas this year when it came out Madbury was getting a 6% increase in its millage (which reportedly turns out to be due to a substantial increase in the fraction of district students living in Madbury) and the board went back and cut some more to reduce this burden.

Last year's warrant had fund 10 at $39.5M and total op at $40.8M. Naively, we're looking at an increase of 40.9/39.5=3.5% (fund 10) or 42.3/40.8=3.7% (total op).  With the increase in revenue due to more tuition students, the amount asked of taxpayers increased by about 3%.

Over the last six years the total district budget growth has impressively come in below inflation, and we've been shrinking relative to the state average since 2006. I hope we can keep that up. I'm voting YES on Article 8.

See you all on Election Day, Tuesday, March 8.  Vote Rotner & Newkirk!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Candidate Redhouse Opposes Lyme Disease

from left: Margaret Redhouse, Kenny Rotner,
 Tom Newkirk, William Leslie
The Oyster River School Board Candidates Night was tonight.  Three candidates for school board answered questions for about 75 minutes.  The candidates for two at-large seats are current chairman Tom Newkirk, current board member Kenny Rotner, and Lee resident Margaret Redhouse.  The recording will be posted at ORCSDvideo.

About seven members of the public attended.  School District Clerk William Leslie was the moderator, which turned out to be a difficult job.  Board member Day and Assistant Superintendent Allen sat in the audience.  The Moharimet PTO provided refreshments; thanks.

Newcomer Margaret Redhouse

This is Margaret Redhouse's first and likely only appearance at a school board function.  She stated that she wasn't expecting to be elected.  "It is not my purpose to win."  She just wanted the platform to publicize her issue, which turned out to be Lyme Disease.  She is opposed.

Ms. Redhouse shared her background.  She has 10 years experience in education, as a teacher and librarian in NH and Massachusetts.   She is a long time Lee resident who's had three children go through the district schools and UNH.

Ms. Redhouse told a story of her husband who was diagnosed with Lyme, but failed to respond to treatment, and, unfortunately, died five or six years later.  She distributed copies of a 2015 Scientific American article on Lyme .

She was against the new track and field because she thought it would expose users to Lyme.  One of her opponents offered that the new field will be artificial turf and not harbor ticks, which was news to Ms. Redhouse.

Ms. Redhouse was also concerned about district scholastics.  She claims an ORHS class is using 25-year-old textbooks which include an inadequate definition of "jihad."

Ms. Redhouse also claimed that the children of "influential" parents are treated favorably by the teachers.  She cited this as the reason she didn't run for school board while her children were still attending district schools; she prefers they succeed on their merits alone.  I asked her if she had any evidence of what sounded like a pretty serious accusation at our teachers.  She didn't, replying "it's just human nature."  Apparently UNH professors are among the influential; who knew?

New Track and Field 

A district resident spoke at length about the possible carcinogenic properties of tire crumb rubber in the field.  Of course, as candidate Rotner pointed out, the board already addressed the issue by substituting EPDM for tire crumb in this year's proposal.  The best thing for the health of the students and the community is to get the field built and folks exercising.

It was disheartening to witness how ill-informed the community is about the field.  A school board candidate didn't know the field was artificial turf and a member of the public who cares enough to write the board and attend a meeting didn't know tire crumb was eliminated.

New Middle School News

I would say the only real news to come out of the evening was that, according to Chairman Newkirk, there is a middle school committee that's been meeting for the last two years and they have been looking at architectural drawings.  My submitted question was about the middle school, but unfortunately the important part, what it's all going to cost us, was unasked and unanswered.  I suspect if we need a new school it would cost around $40M or 1 year's budget, so if you pay for it over 20 years that's a 5% annual increase plus a few more percent for interest; that works out to a tax hike of 7% to 10% -- ouch.

Anyway, the meeting surreally went off the rails a few times, despite the moderator's noble attempts to rein it in.  After it was over, I suggested to Ms. Redhouse that if she wants to address the community about Lyme she can make public comments at town and school meetings.  She didn't have to file to run for office.  Her reply was something like she couldn't do that because she didn't know when the meetings were.  Upon questioning, I discovered that Ms. Redhouse does not use the Internet.

So I guess there's not really a race for school board this year.  Congratulations Tom and Kenny.