Saturday, March 22, 2014

Congratulations Chairman Newkirk

Congratulations to Tom Newkirk, who was unanimously chosen as Chair by the ORCSD School Board last Wednesday (video). Al Howland was elected Vice Chair 6 to 1. The board includes newly seated members Denise Day and Sarah Farwell and a new student rep, a sophomore named Maegan Doody.  Meagan was recently chosen New Hampshire’s Gatorade 2013-14 Girls’ Cross Country Runner of the Year.  Congratulations to them all.

Maria Barth voted no on Al, having nominated Denise Day while declaring the vice chair position is best held by someone who can eventually be chair.  (Al has only one year left in his term.)  In the end, even Denise voted for Al.  Al didn't attempt to refute the idea that vice chair is training for chair, so I'm going to start the rumor here that Al is running for reelection next year with an eye on becoming chair in 2016.  You heard it here first folks because I just made it up.

Outgoing Chair Maria Barth seemed happy to pass the baton to then Vice Chair Newkirk. You may recall two years ago both Maria and Tom vied for Chair, and Tom magnanimously allowed the more experienced Maria to take the reins.  It was a time of upheaval in our district, with four new board members, a one-year interim superintendent near the end of his stint, new principals in the high school and Mast Way and lots of turnover at the assistant superintendent/director level.  Maria was the calm at the center of the storm, a farmer in Lee, a grandmother of Oyster River students who had 11 years experience as chair of the Kittery school board (they call it school committee).  To me, she was immediate relief from the seemingly unremitting irritation of the previous chair.

Then things ran smoothly.  They could have gone much worse. There was turnover for a while longer, but that seems to have long since settled down to a more typical level.  Chairman Barth and new Superintendent Morse systematically addressed the outstanding controversies in the district, to the point now where they are largely settled.   Elementary rebalancing -- approved.  Tuitioning -- approved.  Moharimet cafeteria -- approved.  Strategic Plan -- community portion done, goals approved, staff implementation plan coming along.  Two budgets under inflation -- check.  Community divided no more -- check.  At this point it seems like the outstanding major decisions are behind us and the task now becomes managing the execution of these decisions.

If Maria got into trouble anywhere, it was when she appeared to be suppressing public comment.  I have to admit I was surprised to see it from someone I'd assumed was a staunch first amendment advocate.  The first controversy was over eliminating the second round of public comments.  Eventually, the current format of public comments at the beginning and end of the meetings was adopted.  Last October, Maria interpreted policy to not allow current district employees, even teachers who live in the district, to speak at public comments.  It appears Chairman Newkirk has reversed this.

Anyway, I want to personally thank Maria profusely for her service as chair in this difficult period.  She was reluctant, but her admirable sense of civic duty led her to step up when we all needed her experience.  We're all better having watched how Maria guided us through difficult decisions with her calm, unflappable manner.  Maria can be very proud of her accomplishments as chair as she serves out the last year of her term as a regular school board member.

Let me try to quickly sum up the news from the last two board meetings.  Last Wednesday, the board unanimously voted up to $40,000 for survey, test pit and architectural drawings for new fields at the high school.   Member Barth in discussion objected that these requests come to the board in isolation, with insufficient consideration and prioritization of other outstanding uses for funds.  The plan is to fund-raise half the $2.4M budget (about $300K already raised) and have the district supply the rest. The intent is to aim for a bond vote, perhaps as early as next March.

The superintendent pitched pay-equity raises for district administrators, around a $50,000 budget increase (0.12%) for each of the next two years (and paid forever thereafter, of course).  I think it's on the agenda for the next meeting.    The board unanimously approved retirement incentives.  I don't think the amount was specified, but last time I recall it was up to a $20,000 bonus to teachers and staff who chose to retire.  Some concern was expressed about overusing this incentive.

An enthusiastic music department presented the new Oyster River music curriculum.  The surprising thing was no more 4th grade band!  Chorus will now be mandatory.  I think there are going to be a few shocked third grade parents -- I know I'm one. The teachers cited research on the benefits of starting band at the middle school level.  Elementary students would be getting more music instruction time and there were ensemble opportunities for young students getting private lessons. All students will be offered guitar in 8th grade. The preponderance of effort seemed aimed at the middle school, with significant increase at the high school too.

Principal Allen urged Friday, June 13th as graduate day.  With snow still expected this spring, the board wisely did not take up the matter immediately.

At the previous meeting the police reviewed changes to the emergency response plan in the hopper (video).  In the new protocol, called ALICE, during certain events as much information as possible is spread in clearly understood language and staff are given discretion to leave the building with children if they judge they can do so safely.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Farwell and Day win, articles all pass, tuitioning passes in Barrington too

We had another great election day today.  Congratulations to Sarah Farwell and Denise Day, who won the two school board seats.  Michael Williams did very well, pulling in a respectable share of the vote but was unable to overcome Sarah and Denise's long ties to the district.

Congratulations to Richard Laughton, who won handily for moderator.

All the ballot questions passed, so the teachers get their contract, Moharimet gets a new cafeteria and the district gets its $39.3M budget.

The tuitioning plan passed in both Oyster River and Barrington by large margins, so that agreement is now in effect.  Congratulations to the boards and administrations in both districts that worked hard to make this a reality.

Newmarket voted down the new high school.

Scott Bugbee ran a great race in Lee, and beat out incumbent John LaCourse for selectman.  The Lee Library fund got its next $100,000 of funding by a squeaker of 359 - 348.

A great big thanks to David Taylor, who very kindly sent us the election returns (any errors in the percentages are my own):

Total ballots: 1,588

Article 1: Moderator

  Richard Laughton 1,290
  Write-in          3

Article 2: Two at-large school board seats

Sarah Farwell      1,027   65%  (of 1,588 ballots)
Denise Day            901   58%
Michael Williams  597    38%

Article 3: Teacher Contract
 Yes 1,066  69%
 No    482    31%

Article 4: Moharimet Cafeteria
  Yes 1,107   71%
  No    448     29%

Article 5:  Transfer from Capital Reserve Fund
  Yes 1,070   71%
  No     434    29%

Article 6: 10 year Tuitioning Agreement with Barrington (passed in Barrington too, so it's on.)
  Yes 1,291   84%
  No     244   16%

Article 7: $39.3M Budget
  Yes  989     66%
  No   512     34%

All in all, an impressive show of support for the current board and administration.  I'm pleasantly surprised the voters went so overwhelmingly for a Moharimet cafeteria.

I want to thank all the candidates for running.  They were all talented and good-intentioned, and I think the community would have been well-served whoever was elected.   I think we can all be proud of this election, which maintained an positive tone throughout.  I hope I can support Michael Williams sometime in the future, though next year might be tough as the three town-specific seats are up, so Mr. Williams faces a tough race against incumbent Al Howland for the Durham seat, should they both choose to run again.

I especially want to thank Denise Day and Sarah Farwell for running a great race.  Even though they were nominally in competition for the same seats, they worked very well together as a team, which bodes well for the board.  I am so grateful I got to work with them and know them better this election season.  Thanks to everyone who helped Denise and Sarah out sending emails and facebook posts, placing signs, working the polls, hosting or attending meet and greets and all the rest.

1,588 is a pretty low turnout.   I think that and the nearly 2 to 1 vote in favor of the budget indicate the school board is doing a pretty good job and not inspiring hordes of angry voters to show up on election day.

Finally, I want to also again thank outgoing board members Megan Turnbull and Ann Lane for their service.  It's no secret I haven't always agreed with them, especially in the bad old days two or three years ago.  But I have watched them at meetings for the last three years and I have no doubt that they have always worked very hard as board members for our kids and really for all of us.  I wish them well in their future endeavors.  I hope and suspect we haven't heard the last of Megan and Ann.

Despite an early morning snowstorm, it was great weather for being outside at the polls. Here are some pictures.  Click on any to enlarge.

Candidate Denise Day with Jean and Annie in Lee

Candidate Sarah Farwell in Durham

Sarah and Sarah

A peek through the door at a light day at the Durham polls

Board Member Al Howland and newly-elected
Durham Library Trustee Diane Thompson

View from the road in Lee

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

It's Election Day, Tuesday March 11, 2014

Today is Tuesday, March 11, 2014. It's Election Day in the Oyster River Cooperative School District.

I'm a busy voter; tell me what you think I should do. Vote today at your regular polling place for Denise Day and Sarah Farwell for school board. Vote YES on all the YES/NO school district questions, approving the new teacher's contract (question 3), approving a Moharimet Cafeteria (questions 4 and 5), approving the 10 year tuition agreement with Barrington (question 6) and approving the $39.3M school board budget (question 7).

Well, I have a little time to read. Familiarize yourself with the ballot by reading ORCSDcleanslate's Voting Guide for the 2014 Oyster River Cooperative School District Election.  It has explanations and links about the candidates and ballot questions.  Here's my endorsement of Denise Day and Sarah Farwell.

Why should I believe you when you tell me who to vote for?   I'm really just telling you who I'm voting for and why.  In my mind, this is not a good versus evil school board race like two years ago.  It's been an incredibly uneventful election cycle. It's pretty tough to find a substantive difference between the candidates' positions on issues. I went with the candidates that had by far the longest history and experience with the district. I think this year showed how such district experience could be of value.  So often this year we ended up with solutions based on our history, like redrawing the bus line and exempting families or tuitioning in more Barrington students.

The third candidate, Michael Williams, is an engineer and parent who first got involved with the board last summer during the elementary reconfiguration decision.  I welcome him.  He seems to have good intentions. I'll comment obliquely on his run by saying I too am an engineer who got passionately invested one summer and involved with the election the next March.   I was fortunate to get to know many of the current board members as candidates.  I have a good basis for comparison when I say Sarah and Denise will certainly be better board members than I could have been at that time.

What about the YES/NO Warrant Articles?  I'm voting YES on all of them.  I'm worried the Moharimet Cafeteria might not pass, as there doesn't seem to be an active campaign to drum up votes.  I think the Barrington tuition agreement is about as gradual an evolution from the status quo as you could hope for, but there are people out there who think there are bad consequences once the 125 student mark is reached and ORHS becomes Barrington's school of record.

What's next? The results of the election should be announced around 9pm tonight.  I'll post them here as soon as I can.  Check FORE -- they're diligent and they'll post immediately.

Are there any other websites for information?

 As much as I'd like to service all your Oyster River School Board needs, don't forget about FORE and Oyster River (and their associated Facebook page). There's not too much excitement about the election at the district's site  The last week of Foster's opinion has a few Oyster River letters, and lots of agonizing over building a new school over in Newmarket.

Anything else?  Happy Election Day. Go vote. Bring some friends.

Dean Rubine, Lee

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Voting Guide for the 2014 Oyster River Cooperative School District Election

 This is the 2014 Guide.  Clear here for the 2015 Guide.

ORCSDcleanslate busy voter guide: Vote for Denise Day and Sarah Farwell for school board and YES on all the school district questions.

This is my annual guide to the 2014 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.  I'll try not to pontificate too long on each question, instead providing links to source documents and previous posts to those interested in digging deeper.

Election day in Oyster River is this Tuesday, March 11th.   If you're a 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 new 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.

Articles 1 & 2: Elect a Moderator and Two School Board Members

Article 1 elects the moderator -- there's one choice, take your pick.  Last year as a kind of joke reaction to what I thought was a badly-run deliberative session, I showed a sample ballot with a former board member's name written in for moderator.  I think she got 14 votes.

This year's deliberative session ran much better.  A touching bond developed between the audience and the moderator, as tributes were repeated paid to his mother-in-law, beloved citizen Shirley Thompson, who recently passed away.  This year I'm urging everyone to enthusiastically vote for Mr. Laughton.

Article 2 chooses two school board members to replace departing members Ann Lane and Megan Turnbull, both of whom declined to run for reelection.  It's been an incredibly calm election season this year as no material differences between the candidates' positions have been uncovered.  I've decided to go with the two people who have by far the most experience with the district, Denise Day and Sarah Farwell.  You can read my endorsement here.

The February 17th candidate forum is available online but unfortunately Mr. Williams did not attend.  All three candidates were at the student candidate forum last Wednesday, but the video has not been posted online yet.   It is however being broadcast on our new cable channel, Comcast channel 95 pretty often: 11am, 3pm, 5pm, 11pm and the middle of the night.  Here's the questionnaire the Teacher's Guild gets the candidates to answer.   You can check out the candidates' websites, and (Full disclosure: I helped Denise and Sarah get their websites going.)

Article 3: Approve the 3 year teacher contract just negotiated

Article 3 ratifies the new 3 year teachers' contract negotiated recently.  The Guild and the district came to a pretty fair agreement, so I'm voting YES.  I'm not sure what happens if a majority the district votes NO  -- probably they have to go back to the negotiating table.

The contract contains an additional raise for teachers at the highest rung in the pay latter.  This is significant because most of the teachers in the district are at their highest step.  The effect is to make their pay go up 2.0-2.3% annually instead of the 1.7% you might guess as the average of the three percentage increases.

If we want our salaries to grow at the nominal rate shown in the contract we need to replace teachers leaving from the highest step with new teachers hired at lower steps.  This doesn't have much to do with the warrant article directly, which I support.

Articles 4 & 5: Build a Moharimet Cafeteria

I put articles 4 and 5 together as they really should be voted as a pair:  Vote YES on both if you want to spend around $545,000 to build a Moharimet cafeteria and NO on both if you don't.  I'm voting YES on both.

The complications (two articles, confusing wording) arose from the funding of the cafeteria.   $500,000 or so is expected to come from a statewide fraud settlement with our health insurance broker LGC.   The rest comes from a Capital Reserve Fund with around $100,000 in it.

Article 5 doesn't mention the cafeteria in case it passes and the article 4 doesn't.  The dollar in article 4 adds the line to the current (FY14) budget and allows construction to begin immediately after passage.

Moharimet has suffered without a cafeteria for a long time, and deserves one.   They especially need it in this period of overcrowding.

While it's technically true that no new tax dollars are being appropriated for the cafeteria, if the article fails the LGC settlement will go into the fund balance and lower your taxes around 1.4% for one year.

Article 6: Approve a 10 year tuition agreement with Barrington

The tuition agreement was probably the major decision taken by the board this year.  I was mostly in favor of the Newmarket option, which would have provided the most tuition students and thus the biggest break to district taxpayers.   The difficulty would be swallowing 250 new Newmarket tuition students in the first year.  There were some trouble with the negotiations that made me doubt it would work out with Newmarket and in the end all that was moot -- the new enrollment projects implied a substantial probability that if we took Newmarket students enrollment would exceed the 915 capacity under current board policy (max 22 per class).

So the board chose Barrington.  As we currently take 70 Barrington tuition students and the contract stipulates they will not increase the number more than 20% per year, the transition will be much smoother.  That's great for the students and teachers, but a bit disappointing to the taxpayers, who aren't going to see much of difference for a while.  The contract also has a minimum number of students that Barrington pays for:

The basic plan is to take at most five years to ramp up from 70 to 125 students, then maintain a level between 125 and 200, an increase from current levels of between 55 and 130 students.   This assures we have a sufficient student body to offer a wide array of electives.   Barrington gets a good tuition rate and preserves Oyster River as one of it's high school choices, we get a guarantee of additional tuition students, additional income and (slightly) lower taxes and the students get more electives.   Win win win.

There's not much downside to the deal.  It's possible (but I think unlikely) we might get more tuition income negotiating year to year than with this long term agreement.  My worry, which I've been assured by the superintendent several times is unfounded, is the tuition charged will actually decrease after the first year (much more of a concern with Newmarket than Barrington).  We might want to hold out for Newmarket, who may vote down a new school this year and be in the market to tuition out their kids again in a few years.  But the Barrington deal is real and it's now and we should ratify it.

Foster is running this article about the tuition agreement today.   They always miss the point that when comparing this year's and other schools' tuition to the $14,000 in the deal being voted on that the $14,000 includes (most) special education while the other numbers don't.

Let's go through the fairness question for what is hopefully the last time.  The complaint is that we're only charging $14,000 for the same seat local taxpayers pay around $17,000 for, which isn't fair. There was a false argument that we're losing money because of this, but the truth is it costs us significantly less than $14,000 to serve each incoming tuition student (because we don't pay for any more heat or principals or custodians, etc.) and that difference goes to lowering local taxes.  I don't think there was a financial analysis done of the final deal, but earlier presentations showed an additional cost of $10,000 to $11,000 per incoming tuition student and thus a savings to local taxpayers of $3,000 to $4,000 per student.  So while it might not be fair, it's a good deal for local taxpayers as well as for students and for Barrington.  I think the cost estimates are high and could be tightened, but that's something we can work on in the year ahead.

There was a letter March 3 in Foster's urging a NO vote that was full of bad information. "If we accept 200 or more Barrington tuition students, they will be a majority town at ORHS." I'm not sure what a majority town is, but we currently have 600 local district students in the high school, most from Durham, along with 70 Barrington students.  The agreement says we won't go over 200, so "or more" can't happen, and we probably won't get that close to 200 as Barrington's model requires parents choose ORHS from among three high schools and pay the difference between ORHS's and Dover's tuition themselves.  Ramping up an additional 55 tuition students over five years isn't going to change ORHS much at all.   The letter expresses concern that bad enrollment projections might lead to an overcrowded state, but the current projection of around 250 available seats to handle a maximum of 130 new students (probably much fewer) gives us a comfortable margin.

Article 7: Approve the $39.3 million budget

Article 7 is the budget. It's confusing, but the default budget (what we get if "NO" wins) is only for Fund 10, and thus represents a cut of $550K, around 1.4%.   I'm voting YES -- the board and administration did a great job holding the nominal growth of costs to 1.7%, below the inflation level (a reduction in real terms).  Despite attempts to add SROs and add back a language teacher and a paraprofessional, the board-passed budget was left unchanged at the deliberative session.

I always say the default budget is what we get if "NO" wins, but that's a bit of an oversimplification.   If NO wins, the board could choose to pass another budget and have another election.   If it doesn't (or the voters vote the new budget down too and we don't have another vote) we get the default budget.

The budget usually passes in Oyster River, though a couple of years ago it was kinda close.  I think the board has done a great job of turning things around the last couple of years, and I hope that is reflected in a big YES vote for the budget on election day.

Foster's just published the superintendent's message to voters which is somewhat similar to this guide.  Typos: "0.08%" should read "0.8%" and "mount" should read "amount."  More worrisome is the misleading implication on the default budget, which you know is only for Fund 10, so a NO vote reduces the budget by $550K (1.4%), not the $1.8M (4.6%) implied in the message.   I also don't agree with the explanation of the one amendment that passed the deliberative session.

See you all at the polls Tuesday. Vote Day and Farwell!

Day and Farwell for School Board

Election day is Tuesday March 11th, just a few days from today.  I want to urge everyone in Oyster River to vote for Sarah Farwell and Denise Day to fill the two at-large school board seats.  Both Sarah and Denise have extensive experience with the district, making each the right choice to win a school board seat this year.

Sarah Farwell

Sarah Farwell is the long-time co-chair of the PTO of Mast Way.  She's a former teacher whose three children attend Mast Way and ORMS.  As a Mast Way parent the last five years, it's been unsettling to me to have had three different principals.  Fortunately, there has always been Sarah there helping out.

Under her guidance, the PTO purchased items for teachers that wouldn't fit in the school budget, including sets of readers, a whiteboard and a Promethean board.  Sarah is behind the scenes at most every PTO event, organizing volunteers and providing the knowledge and experience so they can do their work.  She's served as a parent representative on two principal hiring committees, visiting candidates' schools, hosting their visits to Mast Way and participating in the excellent choices made.

When she's not running the PTO, you can usually find Sarah volunteering in the library or classroom at Mast Way or the middle school.  If you can't, look out the window -- she's probably doing the landscaping.   Or training middle schoolers to compost.  Or something else that is just making things better for the students, teachers and staff around her.  Sarah has been an incredibly positive force advocating for our children, parents and teachers and I am sure as a school board member she will continue to be so.

I've been posting on the district since the beginning of 2012.  Before becoming a candidate, Sarah Farwell showed up twice, each time with pictures!  Here's a story I wrote about the search that led us to Principal Carrie Vaich and here's a story about last election day.

Denise Day

I met Denise Day during the myriad controversies several years ago: a principal quitting in disgust, a botched principal search that led to a student walkout, a board member's hateful tweets discovered and illegal meetings to swap superintendents uncovered.  It was a pretty crazy, intense time in the district that if you ever cared to you could read all about by starting from the beginning of this blog and reading the first 15 or 20 posts.  There's nothing quite like a school board run amok to arouse the citizenry, and that was what got me and apparently Denise interested.

For as long as I've known Denise, she has always been the voice of reason, intelligence and calm.  This is of course especially valuable when emotions were running so high during the controversies.  Since then, we've both been regulars at school board meetings.  Denise has impressed me with her knowledge of the issues and with her ability to make insightful public comments, usually urging prudent and careful consideration with an eye toward how things were handled in the past.   Along with her deep grasp of issues in the district, Denise possesses a calm demeanor that is well suited to handling the many hot potatoes the board will have to deal with.  She is already shown herself to be a valuable part of the board discussion, as you can tell from her public comments. I especially like how she often asks what we can learn from events and how we can improve.  Denise has demonstrated she's ready for a seat at the table.

As a parent, Denise has experienced every grade Oyster River has to offer, as her son completed K through 12 here.  Denise was active in the PTOs all through her son's education, and, incredibly, still attends high school PTO meetings.  Her knowledge of the district goes all the way back to the mid 1990s.  Professionally, Denise has relevant experience from her current position as a supervisor for Strafford County Head Start and from a 7 year stint as a middle school counselor.  We are very fortunate to have such a qualified candidate as Denise Day.

Denise too has appeared in before becoming a candidate (here and here).


I don't mean to imply anything bad about the third candidate in the race, Michael Williams.   I don't know him very well.  He is a relative newcomer to the district.  One silver lining of turmoil like from the elementary reconfiguration decision is that it inspires good folks like Mr. Williams to get the idea to serve.  I welcome him.  While I believe that Sarah and Denise each bring knowledge of the district that make them superior candidates this cycle, I look forward to perhaps supporting Mr. Williams for school board in the future.

Sarah and Denise are known quantities, and known to be very good.   Unfortunately, we know much less about Mr. Williams, who missed the Candidates Forum on February 17 and did not attend last night's board meeting, the last before the election.   He seems pretty busy with a brand new baby and a job that requires travel.  Mr. Williams did attend yesterday's Student Candidate Forum, and I've asked the video folks to post it while it's timely. I'll post a link if they do.

It's been a relatively pleasant couple of years since Chairman Barth took the reins as chair.  The recent controversies surrounding football, tuition students and elementary school reconfiguration were passionately debated, but without the severe rancor that characterized the aforementioned tweet-era controversies.  After a sometimes long process the board reached the correct decisions.

 I'll point out that the decisions each were resolved in accordance with our history.  Redraw with family exemption is the district's traditional response to an elementary school imbalance.    We already take Barrington tuition students, and the decision to slowly ramp up and take more is really just a continuation and expansion of the status quo.  Similarly, the district has said no to football in the past and did so again last year.   I believe it's usually best when the district does things the way it has in the past (and thus reasonably expected by the public to do it that way again).

Sarah and Denise will help by bringing their long experience with the district to bear on future problems.  In the process, they will continue to unify and heal the community.  I urge you to vote for them on Tuesday.  

[A 350 word version of this essay was sent to  There's a fair amount to say about last night's board meeting, the last one for the current board, but I'll save that for another post.  You can watch here or on our new cable channel, channel 95, which is all Oyster River School District.  Durham keeps channel 22 all to itself. ]