Friday, February 26, 2021

Two weeks to the School Board Election

It's an exciting school board election this year in Oyster River. In about half of the years it's two races with only the incumbents running, snooze.  This year on the ballot we have eleven candidates, for four school board seats. (Maybe ten now, there's a rumor someone dropped out, see below.)   

There's a glut of information on the races; I'll guide you through all that before I give you my picks.  I'm going to keep it unbiased until then; please skip to the end if you just want to know who I'm voting for.

The Oyster River Cooperative School District Board

Let's start with some background before we get to the candidates. The Oyster River School Board has seven members: three town-specific seats (one for each of Durham, Lee and Madbury) and four at-large seats.  To run for a town specific seat, you must reside in that town. Any eligible voter in any of the three towns can run for the at-large seats. 

The seats all have three year terms. But this year the winner of the At-Large seat only wins a one year term.  That's the remainder of Dr. Kenny Rotner's term.  Kenny sadly passed away last summer; Yusi Turell was appointed by the board to serve the five or six months until election day.

The important thing for voters to know is: Every Oyster River voter can vote in all four races. I'll say it again: Every voter can choose a candidate for each of all four seats.  The school district ballot is the same in all three towns.  You don't need to live in Lee to vote for the Lee representative to the school board.

Election Day Information

Election Day is Tuesday March 9, 2021.  Eligible citizens in the three towns can vote a school district ballot.  Vote at your local town polling place like any other election.  It's best to register ahead of time if you're not already registered, but same day registration is available.  It's best to bring ID, and if you need to register, proof of address like a utility bill, but you can still vote even if you don't bring these by signing an affidavit they'll give you.

The school district election is combined with the town elections; they all count as municipal elections.  In addition to the school board ballot you'll be given a ballot specific to your town when you vote. Besides voting for people, each of the ballots contains ballot questions; we'll focus on the school board candidates here and get into the school district ballot questions in the next post.  

Generally polls are open in Lee and Durham from 7 am to 7 pm with Madbury open from 11 am to 7 pm (that's an edit; I had 7:30 before; the shortened hours are a change).  This year due to the pandemic there are changes; Lee is doing Drive Through Voting at the Lee Transfer Station. Here are some useful town links:

Durham voting informationballotcandidate profiles
Lee voting informationcandidates, ballot questions
Madbury voting information. The same link has the ballot questions, which are voted on in town meeting after the polls close, 7:30 pm at Moharimet. [Thanks to the Madbury town clerk for straightening me out.] I couldn't find an official list of the candidates yet at

Oyster River is an SB2 district, which means that the election is split into two parts. The draft ballot is produced by the school district, plus any citizen articles added by petition. The first part of the election is the Deliberative Session (this year's was on February 2) where the voters meet to amend the ballot questions.  The Deliberate Session is the vestige of New England Town Meeting, where a majority of voters at the session can change the ballot, subject to restrictions.  This year, like most, the ballot was unchanged at Deliberative Session.  Our focus here is the second part of the election, Election Day March 9, when each question is voted on by the citizenry. 

2021 School Board Candidate Information

Like I've mentioned, there is already a lot of information out about the candidates. In fact, you don't really need me, the Moharimet and Mast Way PTOs are running a facebook page:

2021 ORCSD School Board Candidate Information

Each candidate had the opportunity to complete a bio and two questionnaires.

2021 ORCSD School Board Candidate Biographies

2021 PTO School Board Candidate Questionaire

2021 Teacher's Guild School Board Candidate Questionaire.

The Candidates on the Web

Most candidates have set up facebook pages for their candidacies.  Some have advertised they're available for meetings via Zoom.  Let's go through the races, and link each candidates name to their facebook page and other web presences I can find.

The three candidates for the Durham school board seat are Yusi Turell (facebookweb),  Jeff Fortin (facebook)  and Eric Mason (no candidacy site known to me but he's CEO of RYSE Marketing & Communications). Ms. Turell is essentially the incumbent; she currently holds an at-large seat.  

The two candidates for the Lee school board seat are the incumbent Brian Cisneros (facebook) and Nicolas Alcocer (facebook).  I thought there were three Lee candidates, but this third name I scribbled on some paper in January, Debra Cavanaugh, seems to have been a figment of my imagination. 

The three candidates for the Madbury school board seat are the incumbent Dan Klein (no site found),  Michele Dunbar (facebook) and Kevin Abbott (facebook, web).  I saw posted on the PTO's information site on 2/22 that Mr. Abbott had dropped out, but his facebook and website don't mention anything about it, and he's probably on the ballot no matter what he does.

The three candidates for the At-Large seat with a one year term are Al Howland (web), Matt Durkee (facebook) and Jill Piparo  (facebook).   Let's call Al Howland the incumbent; he's served in the Durham seat since 2012 though this time he's seeking the one-year at-large seat. 

Update 4pm 2/28.  A few hours ago Mr. Abbott posted 

Good morning everyone. Sadly I am not able to seek the seat for School Board representing Madbury any longer. That being said, my name will still be on the ballot because they are already at the Town Halls.

There seems to be a lot of confusion with regards to the "officially withdrawn" question. There is no way at this point to do that. If by some chance after telling every person I can that I'm not running, I happen to win the seat, I will be forced to resign.

All of this is due to deeply personal reasons. So, with all due respect, this is all of the information I am sharing at this time.

Thank you for the opportunity to do this. Good luck to the remaining candidates.

Update 9am 3/3:  Yesterday morning Dr. Fortin posted

Regretfully, I am writing to withdraw my candidacy for the ORCSD School Board. Work related responsibilities will be increasing in the next few months as I help guide our College through the development of a new Strategic Plan and a two-year long accreditation process. Previously I believed I would be relieved of some current administrative work in order to provide public service on the School Board. This is no longer the case. I apologize to my supporters, but it is beyond my control.
I am disappointed in being unable to collaborate with faculty and staff to support and enhance the district’s already strong programs in technology, equity, student mental health, and LGBTQ+ inclusion. I believe it is better to leave this important work to others if I am unable to devote proper time to the position.
I have received overwhelming support for my candidacy for which I thank you all.

Candidates Night

Candidates night was supposed to be last Tuesday, 2/23, but with all the candidates and the pandemic it was changed to be over two nights next week.

The meetings are fully virtual; check out the facebook links for more detail.

Tuesday March 2, 2021 7-8:30 pm: Q&A Madbury and At-Large Candidates
                Zoom link: Password: 123456
                Facebook Live:
Thursday March 4, 2021 7-8:30 pm: Q&A Lee and Durham Candidates
                Zoom link: Password: 123456
                Facebook Live:

The meetings will also be streamed on ORCSDstreaming

Usually Candidates Night is moderated by the district clerk, a paid position in the district, with the PTOs hosting and supplying refreshments.  The district sometimes sends a camera crew whose job seems to be lose the night's recording, at least until after election day.  

This year the Moharimet PTO will host and moderate the Madbury/At-Large night and the Mast Way PTO will moderate the Lee/Durham night.  I'm not sure I like the change; let's see how it goes.

While there will be an opportunity to ask questions live, using Zoom chat and facebook chat, the PTOs recommend you email your questions in advance to both and by March 1.
Dean's Picks
Congratulations on reading this far or just skipping ahead. Hopefully it's been unbiased information to this point. But ORCSD Clean Slate originally got its name because I wanted to tell you all who I think should be on the board. In 2012, that was a clean slate -- the incumbents all had to go.

This year I'm voting for all the incumbents: Yusi Turell, Brian Cisneros, Dan Klein & Al Howland. Let's talk about each race.

Yusi Turell is quite simply the most talented board member I've ever observed. Most new board members remain relatively quiet at the beginning, learning the ropes about how the board works. Yusi jumped right in like she'd been at that table for years, advocating for and spearheading the expansion of in-person learning in accordance with CDC mitigation guidelines.
Besides talent, Yusi brings her values of respect, inclusion, empathy, communication and critical thinking to the table. As a woman of color, she brings a diversity and perspective that the board had lacked. She is active in district's anti-racism effort.  I think she's taken on the role of Maria Barth and Kenny Rotner as the conscience of the district, always considering the effect of the board's decisions on all the stakeholders.
Yusi's determination led to medical experts advising the board, the district's awesome COVID dashboard and the Concurrent Teaching Working Group, which Yusi co-chaired.  That group’s extensive research helped inform the plan that has willing high schoolers returning in person two days per week starting March 8. Here's the working group's final report.
Somewhat independent from the group, the difficult issue of concurrent teaching was solved by the ‘teacher choice’ model.  The model allows the teacher to handle their entire class in the same period, students attending both in person and remotely, in a manner best suited to the material.   Yusi is careful to credit the principal and superintendent for making the teacher choice model a reality.  
I should back up. In my opinion and with hindsight, the board made a few unfortunate decisions this summer.  The most impactful was the decision not to open the middle school and the high school more fully in the fall, when cases were down.  We didn't know how good we had it. Now we're trying to open more when conditions are arguably much worse.  
Related to that was the lack of foresight to produce a plan that allowed for smooth transitioning between say (a) fully open (while still providing a remote option), (b) a hybrid model, students in-person say two days per week, (c) targeted learners only in person, and (d) fully remote, as conditions warranted.  
Finally, the board agreed to a Memorandum of Agreement with the teacher's guild that teachers would not have to teach remote and in-person students concurrently.  That MoA subsequently became an obstacle to reopening more fully, seemingly requiring that some students be reassigned to different classes and doubling the asynchronous time when students were expected to work independently.
Let's be clear. This all happened before Yusi was appointed to the board. Yusi's time on the board has been spent trying to fix these decisions. She's been successful. Informed by the Concurrent Teaching Working Group’s research, the district has produced a plan, accepted by teachers and adopted by the board, that brings high school students back into the building two days a week, without increasing asynchronous time. Teachers teach their in-person and remote students concurrently in the same class period, but it's up to them exactly what that looks like.  The district is attempting to hire more paraprofessionals to make it all work.
There seems to be a whisper campaign going around saying Yusi wanted to open the school at all costs, safety be damned. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yusi has consistently tried to balance opening more fully against the safety considerations.   I wholeheartedly endorse her as the Durham representative to the ORCSD board.
I suppose this is the place to say a word about Yusi's opponents.  Jeff Fortin seems to be getting the most attention, though the most important fact about him is often omitted: His wife is ORHS principal Suzanne Filippone.
Don't get me wrong, I love the principal. I was honored to be on the committee that recommended her to be principal.  But that doesn't mean I want her to have her own personal representative on the board.
Jeff Fortin would be hopelessly conflicted as a board member.  He would presumably recuse himself in decisions that directly involved things like the principal's salary.  But it's not clear how far beyond that he'll go.  Almost every decision involves the high school principal.  How are we to know he's making those decisions in the best interest of the district, and not in the interest of his wife, with whom he has to ride home with from the meeting and live with the rest of the time?  I'm sure he thinks he'll be acting ethically in the district's best interest, but can he really do that without recusal?   It seems if he was elected we'd have a board member who could only do a fraction of the work, and will have conflict of interest questions lingering in the work he'll do. Next.
The other candidate is Erik Mason, who I don't know either.  I'm reasonably certain neither he nor Dr. Fortin has made a comment at a board meeting in recent memory.  Neither was among the candidates who volunteered to serve in the vacated seat last September.  
Mr. Mason calls himself a "professional ideator".  I suppose he'd be helpful with district communication, but his aversion to social media gives me pause even there.  
In summary, I just don't see any reason to opt for anyone who's shown no interest in the Oyster River School Board over Yusi Turell, who's served the district in numerous ways over a number of years, and who in her short time on the board has demonstrated the values and effectiveness we all want in a board member.
Brian Cisneros was first appointed to the board when Maria Barth resigned, and was subsequently elected for three a three year term.   I didn't know him when he was appointed, but I did appreciate him stepping up when folks were asking me to be the Lee rep.  I've since come to appreciate him even more.
Brian brings a wealth of knowledge to the table.  He's the business administrator for SAU 61, Farmington.  It's like having a extra Sue Caswell around that we don't have to pay -- quite handy.  Prior to serving Oyster River, Brian was already on the board of a non-profit, giving him additional relevant experience.  That was invaluable in figuring out how to finance a new middle school with no state help without being too hard on the taxpayers. I think he's most proud of his efforts that helped get the new middle school passed the first time it appeared on the ballot -- quite a feat around here.  Like Yusi, Brian's been pushing the board to get more kids safely in the buildings.
I don't know his opponent Nicolas Alcocer.  From what I've read he seems like a fine person, who would represent Lee and Oyster River well.  Mr. Alcocer admits he doesn't really have much experience directly relevant to being a school board member. I'm sticking with Brian.
Dan Klein has been the Madbury representative to the board since 2015. He's been a great supporter of district athletics. He's also served on the policy committee for a long time. Policies are rules adopted by the board that govern the schools. I believe Dan is especially proud of his work on the district's transgender policy. It was groundbreaking and has since been copied by many other schools in the state.
Dan's other main strength, in my opinion, has been as a negotiator on the negotiating committee. Staff is of course the biggest expense of the school district. Dan's work has kept the growth in staff costs tamped down while still allowing the district to attract gifted and innovative teachers and other staff and keep everybody happy -- quite a balancing act. He's generally supportive of occasional retirement incentives which encourage the retirement of highly paid senior teachers. Those folks are replaced with someone more junior and less costly, and sometimes not replaced at all, saving us some money.
Dan brings non-profit experience in lobbying, communications, grant writing and programing management to the the table. He was instrumental in getting the later start time in the district, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Michele Dunbar is the candidate running against Dan.  I don't really know her beyond a smile and nod when we pass in the hallway.  Frankly, I was surprised when I finally realized that angry person behind the mask threatening the school board with lawyers and imploring members to resign was the same person. I dug a little deeper on facebook and saw her posting things like, "the election was stolen...America will dissolve, extreme liberalism and communism will prevail..."   By now we all know how that song ends. This was the kind of school board member that this blog was started to fight against. 
Dan's other opponent was Kevin Abbott.  Per my request, the PTO has double-checked Mr. Abbott has withdrawn from the race, even though his name will still appear on the ballot.  His candidate facebook page remains active, though he seems to have just taken his web page down.  Apparently he would be unable to accept the position had he won.
It's too bad -- he's a police officer who sent in a picture posing in front of a Biden sign.  I saw another one where he's with Jill Biden.  He seems like one of the good guys.  He has an unexpected connection to Mr. Klein, as he was apparently appointed by ORYA to investigate the alleged plot to bean Mr. Klein's daughter which made national news. I had plenty of questions, including about the promised ORYA audit report that never appeared, that I guess I won't get to ask him now.
[Update 2/26 7pm.  The Madbury Town Clerk wrote me that Kevin Abbott is listed on the ballot and has not officially withdrawn his name from the race.]
The choice is clear in Madbury -- Dan Klein for the win.
Al Howland has been on the school board since since 2012. I've known him since he was one of the four candidates my wife and I tried to get elected after we found about all the shenanigans going on.  I've known his wife long before that -- she's an OB who delivered my boy and probably a good fraction of the Oyster River student body.  [Update 7pm 2/26: She's written me to clarify that my wife did most of the work while she stood by.]
Al is currently a Durham Town Councilor as well.   He wasn't planning to run again, choosing instead to devote his time to Durham. But with Kenny Rotner's passing I think he feels an obligation to finish the work they started, especially the new middle school and associated financing.  He chairs the relatively recently formed finance committee, originally created to get a jump on the middle school financing and now very helpful for long-term budget planning in time of COVID. 
I don't know his opponents Matt Durkee and Jill Piparo. I read all their information and they seem like fine people. Ms. Piparo even made school board candidate T shirts, kicking it up a notch here in Oyster River. I just didn't see much relevant experience that would make me even consider choosing one of them over Al.  Al's experience on the board makes him invaluable.  We're lucky he wants to give us another year, and we should take him up on it.
Phew.  Thanks for hanging in there until the end.  This is the busy time for ORCSDcleanslate.  I'm sure I'll churn out another post or two before election day, so come back soon. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Local School Tax up 10% in Lee, 9% in Madbury

Public Budget Hearing

Last night, Wednesday January 13, 2021, was the Public Hearing on the Oyster River School District FY 2022 budget.  Two brave members of the public showed up at the high school auditorium.  I watched on YouTube.  Click here for the superintendent's slide presentation.

The budget topped fifty million dollars for the first time.  The main news is the Local Education tax line is forecasted to go up 10.5% in Lee, 9% in Madbury, and 2% in Durham.  As I said the last few times, it's not the school board's fault, which admirably kept their increase to under 3% while financing a new $50M middle school.  

The Local Ed tax is about 55% of your total property tax bill in Durham, 62% in Madbury and 65% in Lee.

School board watchers have known since early December about the big projected rises in the Lee and Madbury local education tax line.  The superintendent presented this slide tonight:

I feel a twinge of guilt when I see this awful slide every year. Five or seven years ago I suggested using "tax impact" as the figure of merit, and the board more or less adopted that.  I meant a single number, the change in expenses less revenue including all recommended warrant articles, but not counting state adequacy aid. The idea was to boil down the responsibility of the school board to a single number. This is pretty much how the board states its annual budget goal, which is a great improvement over the old way.

But here what they're trying to do is, at least a first glance, is predict the change in the millage on the Local Education tax line on your tax bill.  They're not really doing this, as the asterisk indicates (and again is missing from Durham, which I've been assured in past years is a typo).  These millage predictions are a proxy for the change in the total amount asked of the taxpayers of each town.  The district doesn't yet know how assessments will change, so they can't really predict the millage.  If Durham has increased its tax base, that total will be divided among more property there and make the millage increase less than indicated here.  

It would be helpful to have percentage increase or just the current values of the millages for each town so the viewer can calculate percentages.  Unfortunately that's generally omitted, as it's usually bad news the district doesn't want to put in your face.  I'll calculate them below.

These millage numbers include the adequacy amounts that the state says it will grant each town, which is the main reason why the changes are so different across towns. (Another reason has to do with equalized valuation.)  There's a formula for adequacy aid, but the state plays around with the total amount of money available some years.  Last year the state was very generous; that's dried up this year.  Lee and Madbury get much more state aid than Durham, so benefited more from the increased aid last year, and get hurt more now that the party has ended.

All the board can really control, what is captured as "tax impact", is the total budgeted expenses less the total forecasted revenue.  That is the total amount of tax dollars that need to be apportioned between the towns.  It gets pegged to actual spending and revenue through the fund balance, the difference between the budgeted and actual amounts at year end, (some of) which gets counted as revenue for the next year.   

Once the school budget is determined, there's a complicated process of apportionment that goes into determining the Local Ed millage on everyone's tax bill.  First each town gets a bill for their share of school budget.  Half the budget is divided proportional to the number of students in the town, the other half proportional to the total equalized property value of the town. Then the state sends adequacy aid to each town; that's where the major differences arose this year.  What's left over is billed to the property owners in each town, in proportion to their individual assessments.  

The net result is pretty close to what would happen if the district was just one big town, where the property owners proportionally split what's left of the bill after the state contributes.  But the apportionment formula, varying state aid, and the valuation equalization (which I haven't talked about) pretty much randomly churn up the numbers, each year making a winner town and a loser town and generally increasing annoyance at the district and the need to finance schools. 

Tax Rate History

Here's another flawed but informative chart from the hearing.  The superintendent calls these the projected tax rates, but that's a bit misleading.  These millages per se are never presented at the budget hearing or deliberative session, just their forecasted increases, as I mentioned.

The superintendent's goal was to show that over the years their scary predictions at the budget hearings have been mostly overestimates, which seems true.  We can't tell for sure by just looking at the actual millages, because we can't tell how much of the change is due to what's happening with assessments. 

Though unstated, these numbers are the sum of two millages, Local Ed + State Ed.  The board has no control over the State Ed line; that's the money collected by the state and granted back as adequacy aid to each town.  I don't know why the district adds in State Ed in this chart.  I suppose the addition has the effect of attenuating the percentage changes.

Ignoring that (because I'm too lazy to look up and interpret valuations right now), the history is fascinating.  Over the eight year span, if you can believe the millages, the average household's school tax in Durham's went down 6%, Madbury's down 2% and Lee up 9%.   That's perhaps a bit misleading for Madbury, which benefited from the extra aid last year that won't reappear.  

It seems too good to be true.  I can imagine Durham adding real estate at a rate that actually lowers the average tax rate, but I don't think Madbury has. (Adding real estate doesn't really work as well as one might think to lower a town's taxes, because that increases the town's value and generally its student count, so its share of the school bill goes up, though with a lag of a year or two.  Commercial real estate adds to the valuation but not the students, so is effective at lowering taxes, though at half strength since it also raises half the apportionment.)  If it is true, it's definitely a story the board should be telling -- mostly lowering taxes as costs inexorably rise. I'll have to come back to this.

Let me try a spreadsheet.

Except for 2021, I got this data from NHDRA.  It looks like Local Ed + State Ed is what the superintendent reported in the previous table.  In both tables the years are off by one --  2020 refers to the December 2020 tax bill, which for us is the FY2021 budget. Durham's $17.37 and Madbury's $18.13 match my spreadsheet and the other years match as well.  It seems there's an error in the superintendent's chart: that 2020 Lee Actual number should be $22.12 so the actual eight year rise (through 2020, not counting this year's projected hike) is 7% not 9%.  

Anyway, assuming your assessment is unchanged over these years, Madbury's 9% rise is against a 17% cut last year, so the net two year change is still down 8%.  Durham is only up 2.5% over two years.  It's Lee that gets the short end, a two year rise of almost 9%.

Let's talk about equalized valuation.  The State Ed tax line is a good example.  In any given year, the State Ed rate is the same for every (non-exempt) property owner in the state.  The reason the millages are different is they're calculated on actual assessments, which are different than the equalized valuations that determine what's the "same" across towns.

The state recognizes assessed values aren't the same as actual values, so attempts to equalize the valuations so they're comparable across towns.  The way they do this is every year, for each town, they compute the ratio of the total assessments of all the sold properties to their total sale price.  Glossing over some details, that ratio is called the Equalization Ratio.  The total assessed value of each town is divided by its Equalization Ratio to get the equalized value of each town.

It's the equalized value that determines the proportion of the total State Ed paid by the property owners in the town. But the actual millage is determined by the dividing by the unequalized assessed values. So the millages of each town are different, even though each property owner in the state pays the same percentage of the equalized value of their house.  

Equalized valuation is a fair if sometimes noisy way for determining the State Ed line.  What it means for Local Ed is that a few home sales in Lee at higher than expected prices end up raising the imputed value of the town, and thus raising everyone's school tax in Lee through the apportionment formula.  While this probably all evens out in the long run, it is irksome each year as one town feels slighted.

Middle School Progresses

Let's show some more charts the Superintendent shared.  He presented these first, saving the bad news I lead with for the end.

The middle school is progressing nicely.  We're on schedule for the students to move in March 2022, only fourteen months away!

The bond financing finally closed in August. The rate was incredible, coming in at 1.97%, which will save lots of money compared to projections of 3.5% or more.  I think this is only for around half of the school; there's another bond to close this year.  With that rate they may regret not having financed the entire thing at once; we'll see where the next bond comes in.

At the public hearing yesterday, there was a fair amount of bragging about the district's SAT scores, special ed program and college placement rates that I won't repeat here; check out the slides or watch the video (should appear there soon) for all that.

Major Drivers of the Increase

The superintendent presented this chart indicating in which lines expenses have risen most.

The district kept things pretty lean in this difficult budget year.  We got lucky on the bond rate, the silver lining of the pandemic crashing the economy, which helped.  There's around $500,000 in bond interest I think (2% of $25M) that didn't make this chart; not sure why.

The $382K health insurance increase is historically not too bad -- we've seen much bigger numbers some years.  In some ways the low number is worrisome because the health insurance budget acts like a district slush fund.  They budget according to some "maximum increase" guidance from the insurer. Often the actual rate comes in lower (after the voting), freeing up some money to use for unexpected expenses.  

The Guild agreement number is the combined raises to all the teachers.  The five year contract was approved by the voters last March.  The only change the district can make is to the number and experience of the teachers.  They've done that for the upcoming budget year, offering a retirement incentive that 17 teachers have accepted, saving over $600K (they could use a negative sign in the chart).

The NH Retirement System entry of $676K is another round of cost shifting from the state to the local districts, making the latter responsible for a larger fraction of investments into the retirement system for teachers.   

The item about the Capital Account is a plan to defer up to $400K in facilities maintenance if needed for COVID expenses.  It's hoped that by September 2021 those will be minimal and maintenance can go on as scheduled.

I should mention the district is using $500,000 from an emergency fund to lower the taxes this year, a reaction to seeing the Lee and Madbury increases.  That's about 1% of the $50M budget, or about 1.5% of the fraction of the budget extracted from the property owners.  That should lower the millages by that amount (including in Durham -- all the towns have to be treated equally).  I'm not sure, but I think that 1.5% is already reflected in the 10.5% and 9% predicted increases in Lee and Madbury.

Deliberative Session February 2nd, 7 pm, ORHS Auditorium

The ORCSD Deliberative Session is Tuesday February 2nd, 7pm at ORHS.  It is a real election where the citizenry gets to amend the budget, the vestige of the traditional NH town meeting. Unlike most NH elections, same day registration is usually not available at DS.  So you need to be already registered to vote in one of the towns to be given a voting card at DS.  As far as I can tell, there is no provision for remote voting -- to vote at DS you must attend.

Each warrant article (except the ones that elect people) is read at DS, then explained by a board member.  Many, such as negotiated contracts, cannot be amended.  Some, like the main budget, can.  A majority of voters at DS can change those numbers, overriding the judgement of the board.  

The amended budget is voted on on election day, March 9.  For the main budget, Warrant Article 3, a NO win means the default budget will come into effect.  That includes only essential expenses.  Compared to the proposed budget, the default budget lowers the budget by $92K, about 0.2%, so won't make a noticeable difference in your tax bill. [EDIT: The difference in the warrant is $175K and I can't currently go back and check the recording].  A NO win would nonetheless be a surprising result after a long streak of YES wins through many difficult years.

Most years there are only around 25 to 50 voters at DS.  Last year they had a dinner ahead of time and got the number over a hundred.  This year there will probably be just a handful, which is scary -- they can rewrite the budget for the entire district.  

The ORHS auditorium can hold 70 socially distanced voters.  They're setting up the gym as an overflow space, which I'm guessing they won't need, and the music room behind the stage as the space for the Governor's mandated COVID party, where maskless citizens may congregate for the meeting. 

I'm guessing there will be around 20 voters at DS this year.  I haven't decided if I'll attend.

Other News

I should go into the other warrant articles and also discuss the irate parents mad at the school board for the remote learning situation.  This post is already plenty long and there's plenty of other news out there including a growing pandemic and an attempted coup in the US, so I think I'll kick the can of additional news down the road.

By the way, the two members of the public who did show up at the Public Hearing asked excellent questions, much better than I've typically seen in the past.  Thanks for being such informed and active citizens.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Yusi Turell chosen to replace beloved board member Dr. Kenny Rotner, 1953 - 2020

Tonight, Wednesday September 30th, 2020, the Oyster River School Board voted 4 to 2 in favor of Yusi Turell to become the seventh member of the Oyster River School Board.  Congratulations and good luck, Ms. Turell.  Ms. Turell will serve about six months until the March, 2021 election, at which time the seat will appear on the ballot.

Yusi Turell

Sadly, the seat became vacant when veteran board member Kenny Rotner succumbed to cancer on August 10, 2020. I'll write more about Kenny when I can bring myself to do it.

Kenny was last elected in March 2019 so his term will be up in March 2022. That means the winner in March, 2021 only gets a one year term, and would have to run yet again in March 2022 to continue to serve, this time a full three year term.

The March 2021 ballot will also include the three separate town races, for a total a four races, each with a separate list of candidates.  Every district voter can vote in all four races, the three town-specific races and Kenny's at-large seat.

Somewhat incredibly, eight people applied for the open seat (that's an edit; I originally reported eleven). That's a marked contrast from a typical March election, where the incumbents are generally  unopposed, and open seats often have only one candidate.  It never occurred to me that people want to be on the school board, they just don't want to run for election.  Ironically, Ms. Turell, as the chosen one, will have to win election twice if she wants to keep her seat more than eighteen months.

Candidate Statement Summaries 9/16/2020

Please click on the image above for the summary from the minutes of the seven public comments made by the candidates two weeks ago at the September 16 meeting or click here for the video of the full comments.  Below is the summary of the board voting that night.

September 16 board voting on candidates

Candidate Brendan Jorgensen got zero votes when his name came up, which wasn't recorded in the minutes. The board chose Yusi Turell and Debbie Harmon as the finalists among the applicants.  They interviewed each for a half hour tonight before deciding. 

There was some preference toward a candidate from Lee to correct a seeming imbalance on the board, with four Durham members (counting Kenny), two Madbury members, and one from Lee.  (4:2:1 Durham:Lee:Madbury would be more representative.) The coop is structured so there are three members from the individual towns, and four at-large members from any of the towns.  My opinion is if Lee wants more representation, more folks from Lee should run for the at-large seats. It's not the board's job to address this.  Ms. Harmon is from Lee and Ms. Turell is from Durham.

Members Howland and Cisnernos voted for Ms. Harmon, seeing Ms. Turell more as a potential long term member who should best earn her seat by winning in March.  I don't really understand the logic; nothing precludes the appointee from running in March, and it's expected that most would.  

While both candidates were excellent, in Ms. Turell the board had a candidate very up to speed on current issues, with many of her own opinions about the direction of the district. Ms. Harmon presented herself as having no agenda other than to help out in this difficult time, though she admitted she would have a lot of catching up to do. 

 Here are some screenshots of the interviews.  Please click here to see the video of the interviews.

Yusi Turell, chosen candidate

Debbie Harmon, runner up

Members Cisneros and Howland voted 
for candidate Harmon

There's of course plenty of other news with the semi-return to school and the progress on the new middle school, along with the associated budget concerns.  But we'll get to all that another time.

Congratulations again to newly appointed Oyster River School Board Member Yusi Turell.  Kenny set a great example that we would all do well to try to live up to, and I'm confident that you will.  Good luck on the school board and thank you for your service to our community.  Thanks also to all the other candidates; you may hear from me in the future as board vacancies arise.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Drive Thru Graduation, Uncertain Fall

It's Memorial Day,  Monday May 25th.  The sad spring term is just about over.  This year, along with the soldiers who gave their lives for our country, we remember all the people taken by this awful virus.

We also mourn the loss of our former way of life.  Ball games, concerts, lectures, rallies, bars, restaurants, schools, parties -- it's all going to be different going forward. Even if we manage to get a treatment or vaccine relatively quickly, this feels like it will linger for a long time.

My daughter is eighteen, a graduating senior.  The bookends of her childhood are September 11, 2001 and Corona Spring 2020.

Drive Thru Graduation 

Graduation Plan - click to enlarge
I'm sorry this year's seniors didn't really get that magical spring term. Once college plans are all set for the fall there's no longer any particular reason to stress about classes or grades. I remember it was a new feeling for me.  It's a chance to think about what you want to do instead of what you have to do.

At least they still graduate on June 12.  This year's seniors are getting a drive thru graduation in the high school parking lot.  Each family drives up to the stage, gets out, and the student walks onto the stage and gets their diploma while family takes pictures. The stage includes, I kid you not, life-size cardboard cutouts of the usual district luminaries.

That's the current plan anyway, subject to change.  Each senior is given a time to arrive, grouped by advisory.  There is one vehicle per household allowed; load your family members in.  (I think the per household thing allows for two cars for students with divorced parents; seems wise.)  During the prestaging everyone stays in their cars; no cross car hugging.  Once ready the cars proceed one at a time to the stage in front of the ORHS multipurpose room.  It's expected that each car takes 90 to 120 seconds.

The plan is to start at 8:30 am.  Two hundred cars at 90 seconds a pop makes a five hour event; almost seven hours if we average the full two minutes.

The silver lining is we don't all have to sit around baking while the names are read.  The plan is for prerecorded performances and speeches to be posted graduation morning. The stage ceremony will be live-streamed, sure to be scintillating television.

For social distancing reasons the stage won't have too many actual people.  It's expected that the superintendent and school board chair will be on stage all day (and perhaps the principal and other ORHS administration, I didn't see anything about that). Other board members may come and go during the day.  A few appropriately distanced faculty members will line the route.  To make the event a bit more fun students are encouraged to decorate their caps and their cars.

On June 2 each senior will receive a bag containing their graduation invitation, their cap and gown, a Project Graduation gift and some other swag.  The bag includes a ceramic tile and markers; I think the plan is the student personalizes the tile and turns it in on graduation day. The school will use them to make a mural memorializing this novel term.  Keep your eye out for the administrators, faculty and counselors who will be personally delivering these bags to all seniors.

If large gatherings are allowed the district hopes to have a cookout this summer so everyone can be together one last time before they disperse to pursue their lives.

ORHS Grades Forms Due This Friday, May 29

The grading policy ended up pretty much as I outlined in the last post, pass/fail by default with an option for grades.  The one thing that was different was the principal decided that the forms are due this Friday.  The board had discussed allowing the students to wait until all their grades were posted to decide.  There's still another week of school after this one (last day June 5) but I think no new work will be assigned in the last week.

Please click to enlarge the May 12 email sent to students and the form a student fills out for each class that they request a grade.


Meals Program Continues

The federally funded program providing school breakfast and lunches to all students who request it will continue through the end of June. As usual, you need to submit the order form in the previous week.  The last two weeks of June there won't be any bus service, so folks will have to pick up their meals at ORHS, where they will be no-contact loading set up.

A similar program will exist in the summer from July 13 to August 14.   Unlike what we've been experiencing during the spring (and the past few summers) the district will charge for these meals.  (I think those whose qualify will get their free or reduced price meals.)  Pickup is required.

Future Uncertain

There are currently some big open questions.  What will school look like in the fall and beyond?  Will people be able to pay their property tax bill?  Will state and federal aid increase or decrease?  What happens if the district can't raise the money it appropriated on election day?  Are layoffs and increased class sizes tenable solutions?

The district is planning for five fall possibilities:

1) Full restore -- remote learning over
2) Restore then resurgence of COVID-19 and resumption of remote learning
3) 100% remote learning
4) Hybrid model, some students in school, some remote
5) Home option, where some families choose not to send some students to school

Apparently there have been conversations with the Portsmouth School District about partnering to provide some of these educational options.

As for the other questions, the board has formed a finance committee to plan. The first meeting was largely organizational. Their second meeting is tomorrow, Wednesday 6pm (stream), and in general they meet second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Tune in for some frank talk about possible harrowing futures.

I think all three towns have semiannual property taxes due July 1. July tax bills are always half the previous year's tax. Board Member Howland said Durham estimates that 60% of the homes have mortgages whose payments include property tax, and those are likely funded.  That to me means a small problem with July collections may indicate a big problem in December and beyond.

Oyster River Wins More Awards

USA Today in association with 24/7 Wall Street named Oyster River as the school district from which students are most likely to succeed in NH.

ORHS French teacher Barbara Milliken was a finalist for 2020 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year.  They gave the award to a teacher whose students are in prison, probably not quite as pleasant to teach as our own darlings.  Congratulations Ms. Milliken.

The superintendent announced that ORMS teacher Valerie Wolfson was named NH Social Studies Teacher of the Year.  Congratulations Ms. Wolfson.  Sorry, I couldn't find a link.

New Middle School Progresses

End of the world or not, the new middle school is proceeding apace.  There was an interior design presentation that was excellent.  I especially liked the Oyster River flowing through the open first floor, the current depositing students at the library, metaphorically.

There's a live feed so you may watch the work in progress.

Other News

The debate about the Superintendent trying to give some of his raise to the assistant superintendent moved out of sight into non-public session at the 5/6 board meeting, too bad.  We'll have to remember to look up how it finally turned out.  [Board Member Day says that the vote was to give each a 3% raise.  That was the original budget, so the board apparently rejected the superintendent's request to transfer 1.5% from him to the assistant superintendent. Honoring the superintendent's request would have saved the district around $700 (1.5% of the salary difference).]

The district is executing its one-to-one plan to get a laptop to every middle and high school student, grades five through twelve, next year.  Currently the middle schoolers and ninth grade are covered.   

That's about it; I'm going now to encourage my kids to finish all their assignments and wrap up this dismal term.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

4Q Grades Are Back, Last Day June 5

Last Day of School is Friday June 5

Tonight (agenda) the school board selected Friday June 5 as the last day of school.  Two weeks ago the superintendent had suggested Monday June 8 as the last day, which was about 10 school days earlier than the originally scheduled date.  A survey of nearby districts indicated a range of last days from May 15 to June 5.

This makes the fourth quarter even shorter than it usually is, and it's usually short.  This time there are seven weeks and three days in the fourth quarter.  No new material will be introduced on Fridays.  There are allegedly some three day weekends built in as well, but us folks watching didn't see those details.  The seven weeks includes that first week of June, where realistically very little learning gets done.  So this quarter will go by quickly.

Interestingly, there was a public comment and other suggestions that the public supported a longer school year.  Vice Chair Williams agreed and was the sole vote against the June 5 date.

The superintendent justified the shorter year by pointing at the increased work that teachers need to do to prepare online classes, and their increased hours of availability, extending to evenings and weekends.

The superintendent announced that work, including professional development, would be available to hourly workers who would otherwise not get paid, and possibly not qualify for their health benefits, if they did not work those additional weeks.  He mentioned a similar plan for paraprofessionals, and they also gave some varsity coaches and the musical producers 30% of their full stipend for work to date.  In general the goal seemed to be to try to pay everyone for as much of the full year as possible.

ORHS Fourth Quarter Grades are Back with Pass/Fail Option

Today, Wednesday April 15, was the first day of a pass/fail quarter at ORHS.  The goal of the pass/fail fourth quarter is to reduce stress on students and their families in this difficult time.  I personally was already enjoying the reduced stress of a pass/fail fourth quarter.

That lasted almost the entire day.  Stress returned tonight when the board voted for a "hybrid model" for fourth quarter grading.  While the procedure has not been worked out yet, and it's up to the principal to decide some things the board didn't totally clarify, judging from the discussion the plan will likely be something like this:

- Grades are back for the fourth quarter, with the usual number/letter grades to be recorded in Powerschool, just as they were in the third quarter and all the quarters before that.  This will be the case regardless of any decision a student may make to take the course pass/fail.  Powerschool will not reflect that decision until after the quarter is over.

- For each class a student takes, the student and their parents may declare in writing the student's intention to receive a grade for the fourth quarter (4Q), or to take the course pass/fail for 4Q.

- Once the decision is made in writing for a given course, it is irrevocable.

- If the student chooses to get a grade in a course, it's business as usual.  The four quarterly grades will be averaged for a full year grade, or for a semester long course, the final grade is the average of the 3Q and 4Q grades.

- For a full year course, if the student opts for 4Q pass/fail, they still have to pass the course to get credit for the full year.  They would then get a full year grade consisting of the average of their 1Q, 2Q and 3Q grades. I don't think they ever spelled out explicitly what happens if they don't pass, but 'have to pass' presumably means a final grade of F if you don't.  Maybe the F is averaged in with the rest of the grades; they didn't say. 

- For semester long classes, if the student opts for 4Q pass/fail, there's an additional choice. The student can choose between their 3Q grade for the final grade for the semester or pass/fail for the semester. This was a discussion point two weeks ago that wasn't mentioned tonight so who knows?

- The default is pass/fail.  If a student and family makes no decision in writing for a course, pass/fail is presumed.  The letter grades will revert to pass or fail, pass being a 65 (D-) or above.  (Nothing was said about a default for semester classes then getting a final grade of the 3Q grade or a final pass/fail.)

- The deadline for making the decision to accept grades will be likely be after 4Q grades are known.  To  be clear, there's a separate decision for each course, and that decision can be made after the 4Q grade is known.

- Pass/fail quarterly grades and pass/fail final grades do not enter into the student's GPA calculation.

This is a pretty complicated plan that the district was against two weeks ago.  Tonight the superintendent said it was more `equitable' to leave the decision up to students and their family.  Then he went on to give an example which undermined his case: a student chooses pass/fail because they had a job helping support their family.   How equitable is that compared to a student who lives in a home with plenty of computers and quiet and professor parents who could cover the curriculum, and who now has the luxury of choosing to get a grade, a decision they can strategically make after they see what the grade is?

It's no great bargain for those kids either. Nobody's getting out of this stress free. Even if someone decides for mental health reasons to actually opt for pass/fail in writing right away, they still have to see all their work get graded and posted to Powerschool.

It's more stress between the kids and parents.  I was looking forward to not bothering my kid about grades. The kid might be better off with pass/fail, but now there's at least pressure from the parent to make the decision after the information is all in, which is strategically the right move if your goal is to maximize your GPA, but not if your goal is to reduce stress in a difficult period.

The principal clarified that transcripts contain quarterly and full year grades for every course.

The decision was made on the result of the survey.  I'll show the survey pie charts to get some color in here.  I personally don't think you need a pie chart to communicate three numbers that add to 100%.

The aggregated survey (parents, students and teachers) split evenly on three choices: 4Q no change, 4Q pass/fail only, 4Q either.  (It wasn't really specified what 'either' meant.)  Teachers overwhelmingly shied away from 'no change', splitting about evenly between pass/fail only and either way.

This is an example where the board's instinct was as usual reflective of the students and parents desires, while the educators were (initially) more concerned with issues of equity and fairness as well as student and family stress.  This time public opinion overrode the judgement of the educators.  It doesn't always.

It occurs to me a better plan would have the default be that each teacher makes the pass/fail or letter grade decision automatically to maximize student GPA.  Students could still opt back into to the regular grading system on a course by course basis, but this policy would likely eliminate the need for decision letters and the associated stress for almost all students.

Tennis Out, Parking In

In other news, the board approved a bid for $285,000 to turn the ORHS tennis courts into a parking lot, I think they said for 83 cars. For 200 bucks I could get some orange cones, some white paint and an "overflow parking" sign and we'd all get to park on an actual tennis court.

New middle school construction is apparently proceeding as planned, with the architects having meetings, I guess online. I've been asking about the interest rate, which I thought would be fixed as soon as the voters said yes.  At the meeting I think someone said the rate wouldn't be determined until August.

There was lots of praise for Doris Demers, the food service folks and the transportation folks, delivering meals in these tough times.  One public comment suggest raises for these folks, "hazard pay."  I suggested expanding the program, currently 100% federally subsidized, beyond just children and school days.

Middle School Principal Richard announced a plan for fourth quarter grading at ORMS that sounded to me more or less business as usual, fitting within the current competency reporting.  He said classes that end in the third quarter  will get summative assessments based on the work in school; classes through 4Q won't get their summatives until the end of the quarter.  Details on page 17 here.

The board approved a finance committee tasked to start working on next year's budget.  It was already going to be a difficult year, requiring finding $1M to bridge the financing for the new middle school without breaking the taxpayers.  Now there's the serious possibility of the COVID-19 recession causing revenue shortfalls at all levels of government.  If people can't pay their taxes, the district doesn't actually raise the money appropriated by the voters. There likely won't be any state help either, and maybe even state cuts to schools.  So there's a real possibility of an abrupt budget cut, necessitating some painful decisions.  But it's OK because there's a committee on it.  I guess we'll know more after the mid-year property tax payment deadlines in July.

As a small step, the superintedent proposed to bring back retirement incentives.  The idea is a $20K bonus for a teacher choosing to retire; the hope is the $100K/year teachers retire and are replaced with younger $60K/year teachers, saving $20K a pop the next year and more in subsequent years.  The board rejected the idea by a vote of 4 to 3.

There was a bit of a fracas at the end of the meeting where the superintendent tried to give half of his 3% raise to Assistant Superintendent Todd Allen.  The stated reason was Assistant Superintendent Allen was paid materially less than assistant superintendents in Portsmouth and Exeter.  Member Klein thought he recalled Assistant Superintendent Allen's pay was the sixth highest in the state. Some members thought it looked bad for Todd to get a 4.5% raise going into the difficult budget year.  Some members thought it looked good for the superintendent to only take half his raise.  Some thought it didn't matter because the total budget would be unchanged. They ending up punting the issue to the next meeting.

Member Klein raised the possibility of remote learning extending into the fall.  I don't even want to think about that so let's end this here.

Monday, April 13, 2020

World Stops, School Goes Online, Pass / Fail

Michael Williams Chosen to be Vice Chair of ORCSD Board

In some non-Corona news, at the first online school board meeting newly reelected board member Michael Williams was chosen as vice chair by the board. Congratulations Michael.

This was a contested decision; incumbent vice chair Denise Day, newly reelected for a third three year term, tried to retain the title. Chair Newkirk and member Cisneros supported Day, with members Howland, Klein and Rotner supporting Williams.

This made me a bit sad. Denise did a fine job running meetings when chair Newkirk was absent, which is pretty much the only function of the vice chair. Thank you for your service as vice chair, Denise.

Perhaps this indicates that vice chair Williams may become chair in the future.  Chair Newkirk served a couple of terms as vice chair before becoming chair in 2014.

World Stops

The spreading Coronavirus / Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread closures of businesses, government offices and schools.  Governor Sununu declared a state of emergency in NH on Sunday March 13.  This banned gatherings of 50 people or more, onsite eating at restaurants (drive-thru, take-out and delivery OK), visits to nursing homes and limited travel of government workers.  On Sunday, March 15th, four weeks ago as I write this on Easter, Governor Sununu ordered schools closed for three weeks, which has of course been extended.  Beginning March 28 non-essential residents were ordered to stay home.

You don't need me to tell you all this; everyone's life has been disrupted. It feels like we've entered a long, dark tunnel and no one knows when we'll get to the other end or what the world will be like when we get there.

The governor gave the schools a week to prepare for online instruction.  ORHS incredibly got online learning with meetings via Microsoft Teams and the usual Schoology content hosting in time for test classes on Thursday and Friday, with official online instruction beginning March 23.

District Communication

District Coronavirus emails
Our school district has been a leader in responding to the crisis, acting ahead of our municipal, state and federal governments.  I'd say the district is doing an excellent job of communication.   We get around an email per day updating us on unfolding crisis.  Click to enlarge the image showing 47 email subjects. This doesn't include the additional emails from teachers, counselors, case managers and the athletic director my kids have been getting.

Because of the leadership the school has shown, many of us have been sheltering at home since March 11th, over two weeks ahead of the governor's order.  Let's hope it pays off in the end.

April Vacation Cancelled

April Schedule
The board voted to eliminate April Recess scheduled from April 27 through May 1.  The thinking was everyone would likely be stuck at home anyway so school should continue.  Monday June 8 is the (tentative) last day of school; that's moved up about ten days from the three snow day June 18th end (range 6/15 - 6/21) we were headed for.  The hope is those June days will be more enjoyable than an April vacation at home.

The board is mindful that three months of solid school would be stressful, especially in the new online environment.  The current plan is light Fridays.  Friday has been designated as a day where the teachers will not introduce new material. They will however be available for student queries.  Member Day's suggestion that three day weekends be built into the schedule as well was warmly received.  The board will discuss the schedule at this Wednesday's board meeting, April 15, 7pm.

Fourth Quarter Pass/Fail at ORHS

There was a long discussion about grading at the high school level this year.  Principal Fillipone proposed a credit / no credit model for the fourth quarter, which starts this Wednesday, April 15. The idea was the fourth quarter will be pass / fail.  Teachers would attempt to cover the usual curriculum, but there would no grades beyond pass or fail for the fourth quarter.  The proposed plan has the students to getting their average of the first three quarters as their letter grade for the full year, if they pass 4Q.  For semester long classes the student can choose between their 3Q grade for the semester or pass/fail for the semester.  They get to choose after they see their 3Q grade.  Pass/fail quarters and semesters are omitted from the GPA calculation. 

Some board members explored an option where the students could elect to get 4Q grades.  The principal thought this was a bad idea because in the current remote learning model it was impossible to assure that all students had equal access to school resources in a conducive learning environment.  A survey was sent around to parents, students and teachers and the matter will be discussed at the Wednesday board meeting.  Interested citizens are encouraged to send public comments in advance to and to tune in at 4/15 7pm to TV channel 95, live stream or by telephone 603-766-5646 ID 461362#.

District Delivers 1200 Meals 

The district buses are still employed delivering 1200 meals to ORCSD children.  I'm not sure if that's daily or every two days.  The federally funded program is available to provide school day breakfast and lunch to district students and any child under 18 in the district.  Thanks to Nutrition Director Doris Demers and all the food service and transportation staff delivering meals in these tough times.  You need to fill out an order form for each child by Wednesday to get meals for the next week; contact Director Demers at if you don't already have the form link in your email inbox.

I have to believe that if kids need meals, so do the other folks in the households.  I'd support and even donate to the district going beyond the federal subsidies of children's meals.

The End 68 Hours of Hunger Oyster River program providing food on the weekends continues.  Food donations can be delivered to the Maintenance building across from the SAU office and monetary donations are welcome; please make your check out to Oyster River End 68 Hours of Hunger.

Third Quarter Ends

That's about it for district news.  ORHS students have Monday and Tuesday to finish up any work and retake any assessments for the third quarter.  It's extra important to get that work in as the first three quarters will make up the full year grade this year.