Thursday, August 2, 2018

News Laden School Year Ends

I haven't posted since the snowy election day.  I have been going to the board meetings, so I thought a recap was in order.

Two Student Deaths Sadden Oyster River

On July 29 new ORHS graduate Juliet "Jay" Rasmussen passed away from an unexpected pulmonary embolism. I know this shocked my daughter as I'm sure it shocked many others. Friends may call Monday, August 6, 2018, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., Purdy Memorial Chapel, 2 Concord Road (Rt. 4), Lee, N.H., memorial service at noon. (Fosters)

On April 9 ORHS junior Jonathan Fairchild died tragically, affecting the community deeply. That day Mr. Fairchild reportedly made an alarming social media post that many students and community members saw. (Fosters)

My deepest condolences go out to the families and friends of both students.

Coop Football is on for the fall

Our cooperative football team with Portsmouth High got an expedited approval from the NHIAA.  Initial reports indicate fourteen Oyster River students are interested in playing football at Portsmouth High School starting this fall.  No one will be cut; all who wish to play may.

The involvement of our district has been minimized.  All practices and home games are in Portsmouth.  Students are responsible for their own transportation and fees.  Despite this distancing Athletic Director Lathrop seemed certain that individual financial barriers could be overcome through available private support in a way to enable near equal access to all students interested in playing.

Middle School Report Released

The ORMS Facility Committee released their final report which recommends building a new middle school.   The report was endorsed by the school board at the last meeting.  (I can't find a better link; the report starts about page 29 in these minutes.)

The report recommends two sites: the existing middle school site or the Goss Industries site.  The latter is an industrial park just northeast of the Route 4 / Route 155A intersection. It used to hold the UNH Interoperability Laboratory, but that's been moved to Madbury Rd near the middle school.  The main benefit of Goss is the sixty acre size including large parking lots. UNH is interested in a joint venture but no one's even attempted to inquire about purchasing the property, so this is a strawman.

The existing middle school site is by far the most likely choice.  My impression is most folks think despite the occasional drunken Cinco de Mayo, the central location of the middle school near the high school, downtown Durham, the library and UNH is preferable.

The exact location for the new building is undetermined.  The existing building would be left in place during construction.  The board gave approval to engage an architect to continue the planning process.

With luck and voter cooperation, the financing for the new middle school will begin right after the financing for the high school renovation ends, and they should be generally similar amounts, so hopefully no painful hike on our tax bills.

Despite some effort the whole new middle school issue hasn't really registered with the public yet. The superintendent will probably stretch this part out to get the public engaged, nominally to make this practically already decided decision on the site.

Mast Way Construction Underway

Construction is in full swing, adding new classrooms and a music room in the rear, and a new secure entryway in the front.  The price tag was over $1M, with federal money paying for the entryway work and your local tax dollars the rest.  Completion isn't expected until late October unfortunately.

Middle School Cell Phone Ban and One-to-One Computer Policy

The district passed a new policy which bans student use of personal devices in grades K through 8.  In tandem, the district accelerated plans to move to a one-to-one computer model, in which each middle school student is assigned their own device owned by the district.  Due to a big effort by IT Director Oldstad and the entire IT Department, the program will be geared up and ready to roll out in the fall.

The controversial exception that allowed individual teachers to override the ban was removed as it is hoped the one-to-one model obviates the need for it.  (Policy, Procedure)

China Trip is On

Forty high school students will travel to China in April 2019, a trip similar to the nineteen students that went in 2017.  The board approved that trip less than a month before the students left; this time we have a leisurely year to prepare. I believe the opportunity is restricted to members of the studio orchestra but I'm not certain.

District Steps Up Mental Wellness Efforts

In May the High School Psychologist Dr. Ryan Long and the Counseling department announced a new district-wide social and emotional learning program.  The SEL program takes a three tiered approach, with broad information presented to all students and more targeted sessions with some small groups and individual students.  (Presentation starts page 25 in these minutes.)

Doris Demers wins 2017 School Nutrition Director of Year  
Click to enlarge

At least the school board acknowledged that she did; I can't find news or a press release.  There was a later board meeting that reported Doris was honored with the president's award in Las Vegas.

Mast Way and Moharimet food service won awards as well.  Mast Way Elementary School’s Cafe Manager Lori Buckley was recognized as the Manager of the Year by the School Nutrition Association of New Hampshire.

Congratulations Doris and everyone associated with our award winning food service.  The summer free lunch program goes on for the duration of Summer REACH, one more week I think.  Kids eat free, adults have to pay.

Revised Use Agreement Approved

The agreement between the district and outside organizations using school facilities has been revised.  The changes are the result of a lawsuit where the district is being sued because one of the organizations using our facility did not comply with the ADA at a level the school would because they apparently aren't required to.  The revised use agreement changes that, at least when they use our facilities.  It also places increased insurance requirements on organizations.

Competencies Get a Fourth Level: Exemplary

[CORRECTION 8/6/18: I said Exceeds as the name before, but I see in these minutes the correct term is Exemplary.  Sorry about that.]

The Middle School has been leading the district's efforts toward competency-based reporting, with competencies replacing the usual letter grades. Each subject is divided into four to eight broad competencies, which are discrete units to be learned. (These may be subdivided.)  For several years, and nearly schoolwide last year, ORMS has been using a three level system for grading each competency:  Beginning, Progressing and Meets.  This coming year they are adding Exemplary, presumably because mommy and daddy are complaining that their little genius is more than merely competent.  This idea met resistance before because it was difficult to define what exactly exemplary competency means.  It's not even grammatically similar to the other ones. Maybe they'll just know it when they see it.  I guess we'll find out.

Youth Risk Behavior Survey Discussed

The ORHS results of the 2017 YRBS are in, which always makes for some scary reading.  Again I can't seem to find a link other than a discussion in a school board meeting.  I'll just screenshot some slides; click to enlarge.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Turnout Low, Results as Expected in Snowy Election

Happy Election Day everyone.  Despite the nor'easter, election day went forward as scheduled in all three towns (Madbury postponed Town Meeting I think) and the results are in.  Total Oyster River ballots cast today reported at 1,099.  According to reelected moderator Richard Laughton, this is about 40% of a typical ORCSD election turnout. Incredibly, Lee results indicate at least 500 voters, while Durham reported only 385.  A little snow's not going to stop us voting here in Lee!  (Actually it hurt me not to vote, but I sat this one out.)

No surprises in the unofficial results, courtesy of Durham Friday Updates:

Moderator:  Richard Laughton - 954                   ELECTED

School Board, Durham: Allan Howland - 907    ELECTED

School Board, Madbury: Daniel Klein - 850       ELECTED

School Board, Lee: Brian Cisneros - 851            ELECTED

Al, Dan and Brian were all already serving on the board.  Congratulations to all of them on their election.

Article 3 - Shall the District approve the negotiated agreement with the Oyster River Bus Drivers?

YES 881  82%    PASSED
NO  198   18%

Article 4 - Shall the District approve the negotiated agreement with the ORPaSS (paraprofessionals and support staff)?

YES  845  78%    PASSED
NO    236  22%

Article 5 - Shall the district approve the proposed operating budget totaling $45,625,555? 

YES 789   74%    PASSED
NO   282   26%

Friday, March 9, 2018

Voting Guide to the March 13, 2018 Oyster River School District Election

Snow News

Believe it or not, we got another nor'easter on Election Day.   Towns of Durham and Lee both say the polls are open, starting now, 7am!   No word from Madbury yet, which is scheduled to open its polls at 11 am.


This is my annual guide to the 2018 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, which is the biased part. It's a pretty uneventful school election this year, so I'll go over some news from the Deliberative Session first.

Warrant Unchanged at DS

I was literally at sea but I remembered to tune into the Deliberative Session (video) around a half hour after it started.  I was just in time to hear a motion to adjourn.  This seemed to be the shortest ORCSD Deliberative Session that anyone can recall.

The Session went smoothly.  There was exactly zero discussion by the public on any of the warrant articles.  All will appear unchanged on Tuesday's ballot.

Brian Turnbull Honored

The meeting started with this year's Oyster River Distinguished Service Award being given to Brian Turnbull. Anybody who attends concerts at the schools often sees Brian up there playing upright bass and setting up and taking down chairs.  He was the main force behind getting a dedicated strings program at Oyster River, and he's been helping it along ever since, most recently by forming a booster organization for fundraising.  Congratulations, Brian.

Mast Way Addition

I thought the most interesting thing at the meeting was Member Howland's discussion of the addition to Mast Way.  For the first time I can remember, the Mast Way enrollment has exceeded Moharimet's.  Just a few years ago Moharimet was terribly overcrowded.  The district reacted several ways: by adding dedicated cafeteria space to the Multipurpose Room, and by moving the dividing line between schools to shift students to Mast Way, which seems to have worked, perhaps too well.

The addition consists of four classrooms including a music room at the rear near the baseball field.  The budget on Tuesday's ballot includes $340 K for this work  There will also be work on the front entrance using a $500,000 state grant that's the result of a Homeland Security audit.

We Met the Candidates

Congratulations to existing school board members Brian Cisneros, Al Howland and Dan Klein. They are the current town-specific representatives from Lee, Durham and Madbury respectively.  As the only candidates for their respective seats, each is exceedingly likely to be elected to a new three year term on Tuesday.  It will be reelection for Al and Dan, and a first time election for Brian, who was appointed when Maria Barth resigned last year.

February13th Candidates Night had an usually large turnout, around fifteen members of the public. Usually it's just the candidates, the clerk, a cameraperson, a PTO parent with refreshments and me. This year no one recorded the meeting, in contrast to last year when there was a crew of four but no video ever appeared. So this year we've achieved the same result with much less effort.

I stuck my head in for the beginning and the end.  The discussion seemed to be centered on cell phone policy, which is up for review.  The candidates Brian, Al and Dan kept saying they probably wouldn't get it right the first time.  They needn't have been so wishy-washy.  The policy was changed a year or two ago and is back in play due to complaints so we're certain they didn't get it right the first time.

Strategic Planning Forum

I missed Candidates Night because I was at the Strategic Planning Forum.  It was run by a couple of folks from NESDEC, the New England School Development Council.  I think these same folks ran it five years ago, and that meeting produced an awesome history of the district.

The meeting was pretty much a waste of time.  Each small group sat around the table making lists of strengths and weaknesses of the district.  At the end each of us listed our top five priorities on an oddly confusing bingo card provided by NESDEC.

Superintendent Morse missed the meeting because he was in Nashville being honored as NH Superintendent of the Year.

Voting Guide to the March 13, 2018 ORCSD Election

Election day in Oyster River is this Tuesday, March 13th.  Hopefully unlike last year there will be no weather incidents that lead to the towns voting on different days. [I can hope but I'd be wrong.  Nonetheless polls are open in Lee and Durham (and probably in Madbury at 11 but no official confirmation yet).]   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 you 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 speed through the ballot questions, also known as the warrant articles.

Article 1 elects the moderator.  It's always Richard Laughton.

Article 2 elects the school board members.  This year we have three candidates for the three town-specific seats, so they're all going to win. They happen to be existing board members Brian Cisneros, Al Howland and Dan Klein, so no changes there.  I don't think the teachers' guild even bothered with their usual questionnaire this year.  I haven't seen a single campaign sign. I probably still have ones for Al and Dan I should dig out.

Article 3 asks the district to approve the agreement with the Bus Drivers. The bus drivers got unionized this year, so negotiations took a long time and the drivers are getting substantial raises.  The salaries weren't too much of a sticking point during negotiations.  The district wanted to raise driver pay because of the current difficulty hiring and retaining drivers.  The numbers are the total increase in salary and benefits to be divided among all drivers each year.  I'm voting YES.

Article 4 ask the district to approve the agreement with ORPaSS, the paraprofessional and support staff bargaining unit.  These folks have been on a bit of a roller coaster, taking small raises six years ago in the wake of the Great Recession, then getting large raises three years ago.  This is return to a more typical raise.  I'm voting YES.

Article 5 is the main budget. Over the last few years the state has reworded this boilerplate to make more sense. We see the default budget is only $70,000 less than the full $45.6M budget.  That means if NO wins (and there's no subsequent vote) and we get the default budget, the taxpayers save 0.15%, fifteen dollars off a ten thousand dollar tax bill, essentially no difference.

The district budget goal was to stay within a 3.25% tax impact, which they did.  Unfortunately the impact is unevenly distributed throughout the towns.    Member Howland included this slide in his presentation at Deliberative Session.

What jumps out is Madbury's millage increasing substantially more than the other towns.  Madbury is losing students, so should be expected to pay less of the share of district costs.  (The apportionment formula splits the bill in two, and bills the towns half in proportion to property values, half in proportion to number of students.)  Member Howland attempted to explain this as some difference in timing as to when the state calculates its aid to towns versus when we sample the numbers for apportionment purposes. I think that means we should see the opposite next year.   It wasn't particularly clear so I hope to look into it more.  In the meantime, I'm happy to live in Lee.  I'm voting YES.

See everybody at the polls.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Guide to the ORCSD Deliberative Session, Tuesday Feb 6, 2018

I haven't posted in a while so I thought I'd recap some district news first.  Please skip down if you just want to know about the Deliberative Session on Tuesday night.

Football Cooperative Approved

The biggest news is the board approved a cooperative football agreement so Oyster River students may play at Portsmouth High.   It's been widely reported (Foster's) so you probably don't need me to tell you.  It's expected that around 15 to 20 students from Oyster River will play football on the Portsmouth team.  If NHIAA approval can be expedited Oyster River kids will start playing in the fall of 2018; otherwise they'll have to wait until fall 2019.  The agreement must be renewed every two years to continue.

The problems with the unadopted 2016 coop agreement with Portsmouth have all been addressed. Previously the NHIAA wanted districts to intend to have a team at the school when the coop ended, which was a sticking point for the Oyster River board, especially with Portsmouth's stated desired to end the coop after only two years.  This time Portsmouth assures us they're with Oyster River for the long haul and the NHIAA no longer weighs if a district intends to continue after the coop.

Title IX was another major concern, with a nominal need to fill a slot with a girl athlete every time a new slot is filled by a boy.  Our lawyer has assured us the expected imbalance will not be a problem.  Furthermore there will be no cost to the district, the players provide their own transportation, the additional liability is minimal, and both schools have moved to later start times.

This is I think the fourth time the district has addressed the football issue since 2013.  It's been a divisive issue in the community and I'm glad a satisfactory compromise was reached.

I was at all the school board meetings where this was discussed and I went to the forum in the auditorium on 1/10.  The best thing about the process was watching the kids talk at the podium.  It's pretty scary up there the first time and they were all incredibly impressive. You could tell the board really wanted to find a way to give them what they wanted.

The worst thing was the adults. Just a few of them. Some people who wanted their kids to play football publicly accused the board members of all sorts of bad faith. A few scared member Rotner, a likely NO vote, to the point where he felt he had to recuse himself from the issue for his own safety. It's really, really unacceptable to treat our public servants like that.  I thought some people made inappropriate comments at the football forum; fortunately for them I don't see any video posted.

It's clear on this issue the board has consistently acted in the students' and community's best interest, rejecting the flawed proposals and accepting this better one.  So you know who you are.  When you see a board member, the words you're looking for are "thank you" and "I'm sorry."

Superintendent Morse Named 2018 New Hampshire Superintendent of the Year

Congratulations to Superintendent Morse, chosen as 2018 New Hampshire Superintendent of the Year by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association in conjunction with the American Association of School Administrators.  We all knew he was pretty great these past five years but it's nice to get official recognition.

There was a party in Dr. Morse's honor at the high school last week.  Thanks to Food Service Director Demers for the great food, including cake.  NH Education Commissioner Edelblut spoke first, followed by Chairman Newkirk, Assistant Superintendent Allen, two leaders of the teachers guild (someone help me with the names, please) and Dr. Morse himself.  Dr. Morse's daughter and grandson attended as well as around 75 community members, including me.  As usual, Dr. Morse gave the credit to others, but we're all thrilled he's getting the recognition he so richly deserves.

Siemens Lease-Purchase approved

Last December the board approved a $3.7 million capital plan with Siemens.  Under the deal Siemens will do capital improvements at the schools over the next year or two, mostly focusing on energy efficiency.  The district will pay them a fixed amount annually, I believe over ten years, for the work.

If this sounds like a bond, it is in all but name.  NH Law requires 60% voter approval for a bond.  It took us twenty years and five election days to get the approval to borrow $1.7M to build the track.  But it took the board just a few minutes to borrow $3.7M for this project.  It encumbers future boards for the next decade without any approval from the voters.  I don't like this end run around the voters, but it seems how municipal finance is done in New Hampshire these days.  We should have gotten Siemens to build the track and avoided all that hassle with the citizenry.

Deliberative Session Tuesday

Tuesday 2/6/18 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.  Last year the football question got mangled at Deliberative Session which complicated the discussion this year.  I'm out of town again this year so I won't be there.

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. Sometimes 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, (maybe) 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 if you're willing to sign an affidavit 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 13, 2018. Usually we get two or three thousand March voters.

I couldn't find the official post of the warrant.  I got this copy from recent minutes.

This year only the big budget article, article 5, can be modified at Deliberative Session, so I don't think it's going to be very exciting.

The ballot starts like this every year.  These articles are skipped at the Deliberative Session.

Article 3 asks the district to approve the agreement with the Bus Drivers. The bus drivers got unionized this year, and they're getting substantial raises.  The salaries weren't too much of a sticking point during negotiations.  The district wanted to raise driver pay because of the current difficulty hiring and retaining drivers.  The numbers are the total increase in salary and benefits to be divided among all drivers each year.

These negotiated agreements cannot be modified at Deliberative Session, so ideally this article gets moved and approved without discussion.

Article 4 ask the district to approve the agreement with ORPaSS, the paraprofessional and support staff bargaining unit.  (I don't think they're officially unionized, but there's a standard three year cycle for negotiating contracts.)  Again, there's nothing to do at Deliberative Session for negotiated agreements.

Article 5 is the main budget.  It's really the only article that can be amended at this Deliberative Session.  I don't see any particularly good reason to do so, but if something is going to happen at DS this year, it will be to article 5.

Over the last few years the state has reworded this boilerplate to make more sense. We see the default budget is only $70,000 less than the full $45.6M budget.  That means if NO wins (and there's no subsequent vote) and we get the default budget, the taxpayers save 0.15%, fifteen dollars off a ten thousand dollar tax bill.

Of course the voters at DS are free to cut the budget to below the default budget if they like, but the closeness of the two is an indication of how tight a lid the board has kept on spending.  

That's it.  Short guide this year.  Even though I won't be there, I encourage all of you to go to ORHS auditorium at Tuesday, Feb 6, 2018, 7 pm.

Useful Things to Know for Deliberative Session

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 can move to "call the question." This means ending the debate and voting on the amendment (or if there's no amendment, voting 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.

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 the signatures of five 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.  (In practice the moderator has broad discretion over the conduct of the meeting.)

By the way, if you wanted to get your own article on the ballot, all it requires is the signature of 25 district voters. The deadline is usually early January, too late for this ballot.