This is my annual guide to the 2015 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. I hope it's useful even to people who don't agree with me, but if you just want to see the unadulterated ballot click here. For each question I'll write a bit and provide links to source documents and previous posts to those interested in digging deeper.
Election day in Oyster River is this Tuesday, March 10th. 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 moderator, who really doesn't do much except moderate the deliberative session. Mr. Laughton did a good job at the last DS (and he's running unopposed) so he gets my vote.
Article 2 elects the school board members. This year the three town-specific seats are up for election. You have to be from the town to run for that town's seat, but somewhat oddly every voter in the district gets to vote for all three town seats. This year there's only one candidate for each seat so there's not much suspense. Maria and Al are running for reelection, and they've done a really great job over the past three years so they again get my vote. Sadly, current Madbury seat holder Dr. Ed Charle has decided not to run again. Thank you for your service, Ed. Three years ago Maria, Al, Ed and current chair Tom Newkirk were elected (they were the initial clean slate that gave this blog its name) and now the turmoil from a few years ago is a distant memory.
Dan Klein has stepped up to fill the Madbury seat. I've gotten to know him over the past few months and it's obvious he's going to be a really great board member. I'm looking forward to voting for him on Tuesday. Check out his website to find out more.
Article 3 asks the district to approve the $2M high school field renovation. Since there's a $1.7M bond, the law requires that at least 60% of district voters vote YES for the project to go forward. Similar bonds for the field have failed three times in the mid to late 2000s, but if the deliberative session is any indication, there is widespread community support this time around.
The total payments on the bond will be about $2M, which averages out to an additional $200K (0.5% of the budget) paid each of the next 10 years. The first principal payment is due in FY17 -- the FY16 amount of $37K is all interest.
Most of the controversy around the field comes from the artificial turf portion. At the deliberative session former board member Ann Wright tried to amend the article to make it a natural grass turf field, but that failed, probably because a grass field can handle only about a quarter of the playing time of an artificial field so does not well utilize our small space.
|This "No Crumb Rubber Field" sign, at the intersection of|
Rts. 125 and 152, is one of the few indications I've noticed
of a public campaign against the use of tire crumb on the
proposed high school artificial turf field.
Dr. Kevin Gardner, a UNH professor who studies the use of recycled material, is of the opinion that the tire crumb is safe. At the last board meeting he said that money spent on alternative fill could be better spent mitigating larger risks to our children's safety.
As a parent I'm concerned about the tire crumb, but I'm going to vote YES on the field and trust the board to make right decision. Rather than rehash the debate further, here's a collection of links where you can read up.
Principal Allen and Athletic Director Parker's Powerpoint presentation of the field project
Facebook page: Support the ORHS fields and facilities upgrade especially this post discussing Tom Newkirk's letter in Foster's.
District pro-field information page www.orbobcats.com
Pro-field letters from Kevin Gardner, Dr. Kenny Rotner and Kim Clark.
Transcript of Dr. Bob Barth's public comments against crumb rubber
Ann Wright's letter against the artificial turf field
An anecdotal report of a cancer cluster among soccer goalies who play on tire crumb.
This email which references this column about Concord, MA going though a similar debate that a reader asked me to share. According to the column, Massachusetts' State Community Preservation Act "does not allow funding of artificial turf itself due to health and environmental concerns."
Article 4 is the bus drivers contract. I'm voting YES. It seems like a big raise, but three years ago the bus drivers accepted a three year contract with essentially no raises in the wake of the financial crisis. That was very generous of them, but by now has ended up creating management problems as our pay scale is significantly below nearby districts making it very difficult to hire new drivers.
I saw a facebook comment that made me think I should try to explain what these numbers $69,147, $21,726 and $21,274 are. They're not figures for a single bus driver. Each is the total raise, the amount of additional money for salary and benefits over the previous year, for all the bus drivers together. $69,147 is next year's total raise -- it's the amount of additional money for salary and benefits that will be split among all the bus drivers in the next school year. Last year's ABC report had driver expenses (including non-payroll) at $1,385,099, so $69,147 is a pretty nice 5% raise. The $40.8M Article 7 below includes salaries and benefits for bus drivers at the same level as this year. In the budget we approve next year (2016-2017), the $69,147 plus an additional $21,726 will be added to the big Article 7 appropriation and the default budget.
Article 5 is the contract for Paraprofessionals and Support Staff, the latter I think including the food service staff. Again it's a much larger set of raises than three years ago, when ORPaSS accepted a zero raise and two small raises in the wake of the financial crisis. That contract caused a management problem where newly hired staff was getting paid more than experienced staff that had been here a while. This contract corrects that, and I will be voting YES.
Article 6 asks the district to create and fund a Benefit Stabilization fund, some money to keep around to smooth shocks when our retirement contributions or health insurance costs spike. I'm voting NO.
Two and a half years ago the state shifted $600K of annual retirement costs to the district (we heard $500K at the time, but now the superintendent always says $600K), and this year they did it again, shifting $280K of annual contribution responsibilities to the district. These represent about 1.5% and 0.7% increases to the budget, respectively. The idea is that if we had this fund the district could release around half of the annual increase the first year, halving the initial impact on taxpayers. Taxpayers would pay the full increase the following year.
I'm not sure the board and administration actually understand how this fund is supposed to work. Because if they did, they wouldn't choose to fund it in the same year as a large benefit costs increase. But that's exactly what they've done. In a year when our budget goes up 0.7% from a retirement benefits cost shift, an increase covered by the taxpayers, the board has recommended we take an additional $200,000 (0.5% of the annual budget) from taxpayers. Instead of "offsetting unexpected increases in various benefits," passage of this warrant article actually does the opposite, exacerbating one of those very increases.
Two years ago the district voted to create an Emergency Reserve Fund with a broader charge. That fund and this have different covenants saying how they can be added to and spent from. The district already has enough ways to hold our money before it needs it -- I don't support giving it yet another.
In the past the district accidentally created a huge de facto reserve fund without all these restrictions by overestimating the cost of health insurance by $2 million in 2009. The taxpayers of 2009 overpaid by around 5% of the annual budget, and that was in essence given back to the taxpayers over the next three years, taking an average of 1.7% off the amount of the budget to be collected each year. Apparently every line in the budget can be its own reserve fund.
A NO vote activates the Default Budget. The Default Budget replaces Fund 10, and thus a NO win lowers spending by about $600,000 (1.5%). 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. This cycle they relaxed that a bit, capping the operating budget increase at 3% (inflation is 1.9%). The district preemptively exempted the cost shifting of retirement benefits from their goal calculation but they claim to have met their goal even without using this exemption.
Last year's warrant had fund 10 at $38,061,624 and total op at $39,325,985. Naively, we're looking at an increase of 39,454,621/38,061,624=3.7% (fund 10) or 40,759,297/39,325,985=3.6% (total op). How can the district claim to have kept spending increases below 3% ? It's because they exempt the increases that come from other warrant articles (such as renegotiated contracts) in their calculation. Other issues I have with the district budget goals include not penalizing themselves for spending down the fund balance rather than using it to lower next year's taxes and not taking credit for increasing tuition and other income which goes directly to lowering taxes. I offer an alternative for the district to use in goal setting that addresses these issues in this largely unread post.
It's a pretty wonderful thing about this district that as a whole they want the best for the local children, and consistently vote to pay for it. There have been a couple of big ticket items recently: Moh Cafe, Strings. Next perhaps a field, all day K (new plan is to start September 2016) and a new middle school. Each of these seems worthwhile, but the aggregate is worrisome. This year it appears the staffing cost increase attributed to tuition students exceeds the tuition income we will get from the increase in tuition students. The property tax system is pretty regressive and we really need to be concerned about any increasing burden we are placing on all our residents, especially the least well off.
All that said, over the last five 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 7.