Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Candidate Redhouse Opposes Lyme Disease

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

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

Newcomer Margaret Redhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Track and Field 

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

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

New Middle School News

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

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

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

Friday, February 12, 2016

Co-op Football, Maybe; Co-op Girls Hockey, Maybe Not

Coop Football

It was an unusually crowded school board meeting Wednesday, with about 15 people showing up mostly to support the proposed cooperative agreement which lets ORHS students play football for the Portsmouth High School team.  The two-year agreement to form a Portsmouth/Oyster-River Division 1 cooperative football team hosted by Portsmouth has already been approved by the Portsmouth school board.  Former board member Krista Butts and Coach Willie Ouellette were among the public commenters urging the board to approve the agreement.

Once passed by the board, the plan has to be submitted to the NH Interscholastic Athletic Association for approval, which takes a year, so this agreement covers only one year of play, commencing fall 2017.  To continue, the program must be renewed by both boards (and reapproved by NHIAA, which goes faster).  Portsmouth has already said it would prefer to play in Division 2, so would not renew if its enrollment falls enough to allow this.  It seemed the sense of the Oyster River board that they would not renew if the program caused significant Title IX violations.

The discussion echoed the discussion from several years ago.  Several board members expressed their intention to vote for the agreement with the reservation that their support was not an endorsement of football at Oyster River, but rather a stepping back and allowing parents to make to the choice for their own children.  In the end the board requested improvements to the agreement, explicitly adding that Portsmouth would be the agent of the funds (so Oyster River would not be involved with the money), and also to explicitly indicate the players were covered by Portsmouth's liability insurance, not Oyster River's.

Besides the agreement and the safety concerns, the discussion at the table revolved around Title IX and cost.  Football would technically be a club sport at Oyster River, with the direct cost of $1000 per player borne by the player's family.  (AD Parker has said he would find private funding for families that could not afford the fee.)  But there are indirect costs because Title IX requires us to maintain equal participation of boys and girls in sports.

We are currently at parity, with boys and girls participating in athletics in exact proportion to their numbers.  We often hear 72% of ORHS students do athletics, so back of the envelope that works to around 500 kids.  Title IX can tolerate a 3% disparity, which I think means if 3% of 250 = 8 net new athlete boys playing football with no other changes, we're out of compliance.  We would be forced to find new girl athletes, possibly with the expense of an added sport to attract them.  Crew was suggested though there's no particular reason to think that would attract more girls than boys.  Girls would be welcome on the football team, and any that join would help alleviate Title IX pressures.

I'm for approval.  My main concern is when the agreement ends, there will be pressure to field our own team at Oyster River, with all the concerns about costs, safety, and Title IX still present.

Coop Girls Ice Hockey

A separate but related issue is the formation of a cooperative girls ice hockey team with Portsmouth High, to be hosted by Oyster River.  This one was more controversial, with one speaker in favor and one against.  The main issue is there's some indication that Oyster River on its own will be able to support a team of 16 to 20 players.    The worry was that taking Portsmouth girls as well would lessen the opportunities for Oyster River girls.  I think our athletic director said about five Portsmouth girls have expressed interest.  The hockey coach was in favor of the agreement, relating the difficulties of fielding a team with a rather small roster.  If approved, the coop team could begin play as soon as next season.  The board directed AD Parker to gather more information about the various girls hockey programs so the board can make a better informed decision.

There's time pressure to get these agreements passed before the NHIAA process pushes opening day back even more, so I expect the board will vote on both of these at the next meeting.

There's not much other news. ranked Oyster River as the third best school district in NH, behind Hanover and Bedford.  ORCSD school board Candidate's Night is this Tuesday, February 16. Maybe we'll finally meet the mysterious Margaret Redhouse, who has filed to run but has so far not appeared.  The other two contenders for the two at-large board seats are existing member Kenny Rotner and current chairman Tom Newkirk.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Budget Unchanged in Short Deliberative Session

The Deliberative Session last night left the warrant unchanged.  Turnout was very light: about 60 people were in the room, about 45 of them voters.  No amendments were proposed.  It was over in 70 minutes.

Election day is Tuesday, March 8, 2016.  We vote for a moderator (always Richard Laughton), two school board members, and YES or NO on the six questions.  (There are also the local town elections.)

The Deliberative Session began with the Distinguished Service Award being awarded to Cyd Scarano.   I could only jot down a few of Ms. Scarano's district projects from a very long list: Moharimet maple sugaring, Mast Way nature trails, girls soccer coach, green team leader, and on and on.  Congratulations. 

Next,  a board member presented each article.  It started with Al Howland presenting Article 3, the field bond.

As usual, the lion's share of the attention was directed toward this one, the $1.5M bond for the $2.2M field.  Nobody proposed any amendments, but five or six people felt compelled to tell us how great having a field would be and how smart we'd all become.  Nobody spoke against. Bob Barth read a long letter about how he was against the field article last year and he's for it now.  That's one.  135 more switches at we're at 60%.  No problem.

They keep telling us how we're going to save a few thousand in field rental fees, and another few thousand in buses, and make thousands in rental fees paid to us and save on pesticides and another few thousand here and there.  If it generously adds up to $20,000 for a $2M field, that's a 100 year payback time, which I wouldn't be bragging about.  That's not even counting the actual maintenance costs.  The field's a toy that if we want for our kids we're gonna have to pay for - this cost savings spin is just part of the sales job.

Article 4, the ORESPA contract, moved without discussion.  Nobody confused the year on year increases in the article with individual secretary salaries, as happens sometimes.

Article 5, selling the 25 acres, provoked some comment.  I think it was John Parsons who reminded the board that the voters already gave them the authority to sell the land some 8 years ago, so why bother with the article?  I had no idea about 8 years ago and I don't think anyone at the table did either.  But a quick thinking member, I think Kenny Rotner who was presenting, said the article was needed not only to give the board the authority to sell, but to direct the proceeds into the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund.  Touché.   I wasn't really sure whether this fund already exists, but Business Director Caswell confirmed yes, and it has $42K in its account.

Article 6 is the transferring $500,000 of the fund balance into the newly resurrected Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund.  They're giving this song and dance about how the board can use the money for HVAC and boilers.  Two articles and not a single word about the field.  I got up and asked if this fund could be used to build the field, and the superintendent straightforwardly answered yes.   I asked if there was an intent to repeat article 6 next year, and he said the board had not discussed it.  I asked wouldn't it be better if the field was mentioned in the article explanation, and he agreed that would have been better.

The irony is that all the attention will be focused on getting article 3 passed, with the difficult 60% hurdle, when passing article 5 and 6 with an easy 50% vote gets us halfway to a field, unless they unluckily need a few boilers in a hurry.  Do it again next year and we're there or very near.  I don't know if it's good or bad that people won't know that they could probably get their field in a couple of years by voting YES on articles 5 and 6.   The district has a pretty solid history of passing reserve fund articles no matter what they say.

Article 7, the maximum $2,000 technology fund for underprivileged students, moved without comment.  I was tempted to ask if the $2,000 had any legal force being in the explanation not the article, but I'd been annoying enough up to that point so I let it go.

Article 8 was the big $42.3M budget.  The board really kept it pretty tight this year, with a 3% cap on "tax impact".  (I was gratified that the board adopted my ideas of including all the recommended articles and the revenue in the budget goal this year.)  This is apparent in the difference between the default budget (what you get if NO wins, mandated by law as honoring existing contracts but no other increases) and the operating budget (what you get if YES wins) being under $60,000 (a minuscule 0.15% of $42M).

Health insurance gave them a double whammy, first losing next year's "Premium Holiday" LGC lawsuit payout of $400,000 and then receiving budget guidance of a "guaranteed maximum" premium increase of 16.8%, $600,000.  They sorta blamed the staff's increased use of healthcare as the driver of the rise, which may be true but I thought was rude. Anyway, despite these hits, the board managed to squeeze in Full Day K and a field and a half, and still stay under 3%.   I thought they did a very good job in a difficult year and I told them so.

There was a discussion of why the 3% turns into a slightly larger number in your local school millage, with Chairman Newkirk citing the change in fund balance revenue and me proposing that it's because the state funding of 2/9 of our budget stayed flat, so the 3% is spread over only 7/9.  

Perhaps the low turnout shows no one's too outraged.  I keep waiting for the anti-tax folks to appear.

If school board candidate Margaret Redhouse was present, she did not make herself known.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Deliberative Session this Wednesday, 7pm

Full Day Kindergarten Starts Fall 2016

In some news I inadvertently left out of the last roundup, the board has put full day Kindergarten into the budget for next year.  They presented these slides at a forum on January 12 (video). Please encourage parents of incoming Kindergartners to register early, as once Moharimet enrolls 54, subsequent students will attend Mast Way no matter where they live.  Registration is at your local elementary school from 9-2:30 March 7 to 11, going to 6 pm March 9.  I didn't see them yet, but check the district website for forms you can fill out ahead of time.  Bring proof of residency (utility bill) and a birth certificate for the student.  

The district put its usual disingenuous spin on the cost, saying that there was no increased staffing because they're "reassigning" upper grade staff.  In other words, people who would have been laid off or had their hours cut, saving the district money, are instead still fully employed.  That's great for them, but it's hardly free for the district taxpayers.  Since the plan is part of the big operating budget (warrant article 8, raise and appropriate $42.3M) the voters don't get a chance to register their support for full day K directly, which I think is regrettable.

The district saved some money by eliminating noontime bus transportation.  Parents that want a half day option can pick up their child at noontime, but there's no guarantee that those students will get their full complement of "specials" (gym, art, music, computer lab, ...).  

Three People File to Run for Schoolboard

As expected, current Chairman Tom Newkirk and current member Kenny Rotner both filed to run for another three year term as at-large members of the ORCSD board.  There are two seats up this year, and a third person has also filed to run.  It's Margaret Redhouse of Lee.

I don't know Ms. Redhouse, but a quick google search reveals she's a long time district resident who's had several children go through the district schools, UNH and onto successful careers.  I was terribly sorry to see a sad pair of obituaries from March 2013, wherein her mother and husband died within several days of each other.  She's a niece of local landowner Daniel Harvey.  In 2005, she sued Lee to get her assessment lowered but lost.

I don't recall ever meeting or hearing from Margaret Redhouse at a regular schoolboard meeting.  I'm sure we'll get to know her shortly.  Maybe she'll even introduce herself at Wednesday's Deliberative session.  I wish her good luck in the upcoming race.

Deliberative Session Wednesday

This Wednesday night is the Oyster River Cooperative School District Deliberative Session. As usual, it's 7pm in the ORHS auditorium.  It's a real election where hardly anyone shows up, usually between 100 and 120 voters.  So you and your majority of 60 can rewrite the budget.  Or stop it from being rewritten.

A majority of voters at the Deliberative Session can amend the existing warrant articles (also known as the ballot questions). You must be eligible to vote in one of the three towns to be given a voting card at the DS. Lately there's been same-day registration at the DS. So if you can legally vote in any of the three towns (i.e. you're a US citizen at least 18 who lives in the district) you can show up at the DS, register if needed, and vote. It's best to show ID (and proof of address like a utility bill if you need to register), but you don't have to.

The voters at the DS get to amend each warrant article, but the articles themselves aren't approved or rejected until election day, Tuesday March 8, 2016.  Usually we get two or three thousand March voters.

There are arcane and ambiguous rules about what the voters can and cannot change at the Deliberative Session.   In practice, the only thing the voters can change is certain of the dollar amounts.  Negotiated contracts and the default budget are determined beforehand and cannot be amended at the DS.

Click these insets to see the full ballot.  Let's look at the articles one at a time.

Articles 1 and 2 elect the moderator and two school board members.  Neither is amendable at the Deliberative Session.  As mentioned above, current members Tom Newkirk and Kenny Rotner and newcomer Margaret Redhouse of Lee have filed to run for the board.

Article 3 asks the district to appropriate (authorize the spending of) $1.9M to build the track and field.   It asks the voters to approve a $1.5M bond to partly fund the project, and gather's the remaining money from this year's fund balance, previous fundraising, and existing reserve funds.  State law says bond measures require a 60% supermajority to pass.  We've tried similar bonds four times previously, and each time the vote exceeded 50% but failed to reach 60%.  I'm dubious but hopeful this time around.

I look at this article as a sad ending to what started out as such a hopeful budget season.  There were plans to scrape together the money to build the field by delaying other capital improvements, selling some land the district owns and deploying the proceeds of the LGC/Healthtrust lawsuit.   At one point the article was going to ask the voters for a one-time appropriation of a couple of hundred thousand dollars and no bond, so would require only 50% to pass.  But then this year's lawsuit "premium holiday" failed to materialize, and then we were given budget guidance that our health care premiums would rise a "guaranteed maximum" of 16.8%.  Now they probably won't rise that much, but we budget in accordance with this guaranteed maximum.  Thus the bond.

The voters are free to modify the various amounts in the article at Deliberative Session.  I haven't heard of anyone with plans to try to amend this or any other warrant article this year.

The "environmentally friendly fill" is a product called EPDM whose main qualification is that it's as close to the properties of crumb rubber without actually being ground up tires.  My initial reaction was skepticism, but the product got the nod from vociferous crumb-rubber opponent Dr. Bob Barth, so it's probably OK.

Article 4 ratifies the ORESPA contract.  The board and ORESPA, the custodians and secretaries union, agreed to a first-year raise of 1.5%, second year 2.25% and third year 2.5%.  Negotiated contracts cannot be modified at Deliberative Session.

Article 5 authorizes the district to sell its 25-acre lot on Orchard Drive in Durham.  At one point it was hoped this donated property could be used as the site of a new school or another district facility, but a review revealed that the actual parcel was unsuitable for any proposed district use.  The article asks the taxpayers to shift up to $500,000 of the proceeds (it probably won't sell for near that much) to the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund.  Originally the land sale was discussed as a funding source for the field; the Reserve Fund allows the money to be put to the field or other capital use.   At Deliberative Session the voters are allowed to amend this by changing the $500,000 amount.  If you lowered it below the sale price, the difference would end up as fund balance and returned to the taxpayers.

Article 6 asks the voters to dedicate up to $500,000 of this year's fund balance to the Facilities Development Capital Reserve Fund.  The fund balance is the budgeted money that's left unspent at the end of the fiscal year.  Traditionally, it's returned to the taxpayers every year, where it goes toward lowering next year's taxes.  But in the last few years the board has viewed it more as a piggy bank to spend while they have the chance, rather than give it back.  Here they're asking it to go in a fund that will likely pay it toward the field.  This article is the sad remnant of the original idea of asking the voters to approve the field with a simple 50% majority.  At Deliberative Session the voters can change the $500,000 if they choose.

There's nothing magical about using the fund balance to pay for things.  It's a marketing breakthrough. The taxpayers pay for all extra spending.

Article 7 establishes a technology fund for underprivileged students.  A nice idea, apparently to be funded with equipment sales not to exceed $2,000.  At that limit, it's probably not going to help all that many students that much, but it's a good idea that we can get started.  Voters at the Deliberative Session can increase the proposed initial appropriation of $1.  I'm not sure if voters can modify the $2,000 in the explanation, or if that explanation has any real force.

Article 8 is the big appropriation, $42.3M to fund schools.   At the DS, the voters are free to modify any of the budget numbers (except the default budget, what we nominally get if "NO" wins in March).

Last year the big appropriation was $40.8M, so we're looking at an increase of 3.7%.   This isn't really the right way to measure the year on year increase, but it's easy to calculate.  The right way is to look at the increases on the MS-26 form:

We can see the operating budget rose from 3.7% like we just calculated.  The Special Warrant section is a bit complicated; it includes the appropriation for the field, which didn't pass last year, and probably won't this year either.  Last year's field appropriation was $2,037K, this year it's $1,922K. Removing those gives Special Warrant Rec Current Year $200,000, Enusing Year  $1,000,000.  I think the latter comes from the $500,000 in article 5 and the $500,000 in article 6.

The total appropriation excluding the field went from $41.2M to $43.3M, a 5% increase.  The aforementioned million (2.5%) isn't really spent, so in actuality this is a bit lower than it seems.  The money is raised, but it's stashed in funds.

The surprising thing is an extra $1.9M in revenue.  Only $336K of the revenue is a real increase; it's the amount of additional tuition we get as additional Barrington students come to ORHS in accordance with our contract.  The rest of the difference comes from counting transfers from reserve funds as revenue.  I think there's something fishy going on -- in estimated revenues for the current year we seem to be counting the field bond that failed to pass, which doesn't seem correct.  On the previous page it lists total estimated revenue at $3.885M; how that became $6.171M here is a mystery.  We seem to be drawing on reserve funds to mitigate the tax increase, at the same time we're attempting to raise taxes to fill other reserve funds.

Anyway, the bottom line shows a tax impact of $28.8M/$28.3M = 1.8%.  Adjusting to remove the field changes this to 26.9/26.3 = 2.3%.

As I stated in my last post, I had thought that Madbury's interim calculation of a 6% millage increase was the result of its assessments being lowered 3.6%, which would increase its millage 1.6% and it lower its taxes 2.0%.  It will, but not till next year -- it turns out older valuations are used to set the tax rates.  Madbury's increase, according to business administrator Caswell, was largely the result of an increasing proportion of students from Madbury.  The board went back and cut the budget a bit more to reduce that increase.

Useful Things to Know for Deliberative Sessions

Here's your reward for reading this far, and also for procrastinating on reading it long enough for me to add this section.

The articles are taken one at a time.   An assigned board member reads the article, then says "I move article X". Other board members second.  The assigned member continues the presentation for a few minutes.  Then the moderator opens up the floor.  At this point, voters lined up at the podium get to propose amendments.  They can also ask clarifying questions, and actually get an answer from the board or administration.

Sometimes the voters don't get the idea that they're there to amend the ballot.   I suggest if you go up to the podium to make a speech, include either "I propose we amend the article by changing the amount to $XXXX" or "I support/oppose the amendment under consideration."  If there's no amendment under consideration and you don't want to propose one, save your speech and let's get on to the next article.

Lots of people feel compelled to speak for or against the article.   The deliberative session is a good place to air the debate, but it's better if there's something you don't like about the article that you propose to amend.

If the speeches drag on, you or any voter can move to "call the question."  This means ending the debate and voting on the amendment (or if there's no amendment, to vote to put this article on the ballot as is and move on to the next article).  If there's a second, the moderator will ask people who are for calling the question to show their cards, and then against, and eyeball it. A 2/3 supermajority is required to call the question.   If it's close it can take a long time to count those cards.  At that point you should say "I withdraw my motion" because it's going to be quicker and more interesting to let the speeches continue than a tedious count on this 2/3.

I can't see why anyone would care this year, but once an amendment under consideration is about to be voted on, you can request a secret ballot.  You need to give the moderator a written request with five signatures of voters.  If you request a secret ballot before there's an amendment under consideration, you're going to look silly.  If you request one while people are still lined up to speak, the moderator will ask if you're calling the question, and if you say yes we get into all that 2/3 nonsense.

When there's no one left to speak or the question is called, we vote on the amendment, if any.  Then we vote to "move the article' which appears to mean putting the article on the ballot and moving to the next question.  I'm not sure what happens if there are no more amendments but we vote not to move on.  Maybe we just sit for a minute and vote again.  Anyway, my recollection is this is the procedure.

By the way, if you wanted to get your own article on the ballot, all it requires is the signature of 25 district voters.  I'm not sure when the deadline was, but I know it's too late for this ballot.