Wednesday, September 30, 2020

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

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

Yusi Turell

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

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

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

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

Candidate Statement Summaries 9/16/2020

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

September 16 board voting on candidates

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

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

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

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

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

Yusi Turell, chosen candidate

Debbie Harmon, runner up

Members Cisneros and Howland voted 
for candidate Harmon

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

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Drive Thru Graduation, Uncertain Fall

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

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

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

Drive Thru Graduation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ORHS Grades Forms Due This Friday, May 29

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

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


Meals Program Continues

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

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

Future Uncertain

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

The district is planning for five fall possibilities:

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

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

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

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

Oyster River Wins More Awards

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

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

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

New Middle School Progresses

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

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

Other News

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

4Q Grades Are Back, Last Day June 5

Last Day of School is Friday June 5

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

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

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

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

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

ORHS Fourth Quarter Grades are Back with Pass/Fail Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tennis Out, Parking In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 13, 2020

World Stops, School Goes Online, Pass / Fail

Michael Williams Chosen to be Vice Chair of ORCSD Board

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

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

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

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

World Stops

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

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

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

District Communication

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

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

April Vacation Cancelled

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

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

Fourth Quarter Pass/Fail at ORHS

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

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

District Delivers 1200 Meals 

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

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

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

Third Quarter Ends

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

$50M Middle School Bond Passes!

The middle school passed on the first try with 76% voting YES, greatly exceeding the required 60%.  I had been pessimistic -- I need to remember that facebook isn't the actual world.  Congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to persuade the voters.

Otherwise there were no surprises.  Congratulations to Denise Day and Michael Williams on their reelection to the board, Denise for her third three year term.

462 folks (15%) are so ornery or so clueless they voted to raise their own taxes 1.5% by voting NO on the school district budget.  Of course YES won so there is no consequence to their vote.

We had historic district turnout, with 3274 ORCSD ballots cast overall.  The last time over 3000 was that great day back in 2012 at 3106.  We got 1600 last year, 1100 the snowy year before that, 1800 before that.  Please see the end of this post for a summary of the last nine years of ORCSD voting.

There's no separation of the results by town. 1627 folks voted in Durham, 1220 in Lee and a rumored 400 in Madbury, probably more like 3274-1627-1220=427 assuming everyone turned in a ballot. I usually expect the pizza to have 7 slices, Durham:Lee:Madbury = 4:2:1 = 57%:29%:14%. We got 1627:1220:427, about 4:3:1 or 50%:37%:13%.  So turnout was up most in Lee.

Lee Results: The Town Center in Lee failed, getting 46% of the vote, falling short of the 60% needed. Write-in candidate Jon Moss gathered 14% of the votes for selectman, losing to incumbent Scott Bugbee.  Congratulations, Scott.  Tom Coakley was elected Library Trustee with 37 write-in votes.  Congratulations Tom.  Everything else passed, including infrared cameras, radios, zoning rules, Parish House...

Here are the unofficial ORCSD election results, thanks to Todd Selig (percentages are from me).

ARTICLE 1:  Moderator

Richard Laughton - 2684      ELECTED

ARTICLE 2:   School Board at Large (Vote for not more than two)

Denise Day         - 2488   ELECTED
Michael Williams - 2387   ELECTED


Shall the District raise and appropriate the sum of $49,847,732 (gross budget) to construct and equip a new middle school on the site of the current Oyster River Middle School, including new athletic fields and demolition of the Oyster River Middle School, (the "Project")...(3/5 Ballot vote required)

YES - 2467   76.0%  PASSED
NO    - 778    24.0%


Shall the District raise and appropriate as an operating budget, totaling $47,538,867...

YES - 2720  85.5%  PASSED
NO    - 462   14.5%


Shall the District vote to approve within the provisions of New Hampshire RSA 273-A:3
the cost items included in the collective bargaining agreement reached between the Oyster River Teachers Guild and the Oyster River School Board which calls for the following increases in salaries and benefits at the current staffing levels:  FY21 $627K, FY22 $772K, FY23 $701K, FY24 $702K, FY25 $709K...

YES - 2635  82.3%  PASSED
NO   -  568  17.7%

ORCSD Election History

I've compiled this from the election reports I've written since I started paying attention in 2012.  The '>' means I don't have a turnout number reported for that year so I used the maximum number of voters of any article.  There's usually around a 2% undervote so a better estimate would be to add 2% to those numbers.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Middle School Vote this Tuesday March 10

Election Day is this Tuesday March 10. 

I usually write an election guide; let's call this it. It's municipal voting day in NH on Tuesday; vote at your usual town polling place.  Last year's guide has details. Lee used Mast Way for the recent presidential primary but on March 10 the polling place is back to the usual Lee Safety Complex. It's a regular election; it's best to bring state ID and, if you need to register, proof of address like a utility bill, but if you're willing to swear an affidavit you can get by without even those.
Ballot from minutes,
click to enlarge

Here's a brief guide; please see here for more detail.  The ballot has five questions, called warrant articles. The first two elect people as described in the next section.   Article 3 asks the voters for a $50M bond for a middle school and requires a 60% YES vote to pass.  Article 4 is the district budget, asking to spend $47.5M to run the schools.  If NO wins on that one, the budget actually goes up $700K more to $48.2M, so vote YES.  Article 5 is the five year teacher contract; claimed to be a three percent annual raise in exchange for health care concessions.

I'm definitely voting YES on the Middle School; we need the school and interest rates are absurdly low right now.  In fact I'm voting YES on everything.

The district kept the budget very tight this year so that the new school and new five year teacher contract all fall within the district's usual 3.25% tax impact goal.  The expected tax rise if all the warrant articles pass, including the middle school, teachers contract and district budget, is 0.3% in Lee, 2.0% in Madbury and 3.2% in Durham.  [This only refers to the local school tax line of your tax bill.]

[EDIT: Lee voters, please write in Tom Coakley for Library Trustee as well as voting for Deborah Schanda.  I believe this is two candidates for two slots but I can't find a sample ballot with the names on it anywhere.]

Articles 1 and 2: Denise Day and Michael Williams Likely to Be Reelected to School Board

Article 1 elects the moderator; I assume only Rick Laughton is running because he's the only one who ever runs.  Congratulations Rick.

Article 2 elects two school board members to three year terms.  This year only serving members Michael Williams and Vice Chair Denise Day are running so they'll both be reelected, not much excitement there.  Congratulations Denise and Michael and thank you for your continued service.

The superintendent and board cancelled Candidates' Night because the candidates were running unopposed.  I objected -- as often the only public attendee besides the PTO rep, my only problems with Candidates' Night were the lack of gluten-free snacks and the curiously disappearing video record.  I would always ask a question about suicide to get the party started.   

In its wake, the district has posted YouTube videos of the candidates.  Here they are; they're up to 5 and 2 views respectively.

Moderating Candidates' Night is/was the main responsibility of the District Clerk, which is a paid position ($400/year for now even less work) usually given to a former school board member.  It's been ably held for many years by William Leslie, who recently announced his retirement as District Clerk.  Thanks Bill for all your service.  I'm not sure if there's video of Bill moderating Candidates' Night with Margaret Redhouse; that one's worth digging out of the archives.  

I have no idea how the district fills the District Clerk job.  The newly elected school board confirms the appointment.  David Taylor, this job's for you!

Budget Unchanged in Well-Attended Deliberative Session

The district's plan to get attendance up at the DS went pretty well.  They had a free community dinner and free concert before the DS.  The concert was great, but that didn't stop most of the folks who attended from leaving right after.  I tried to talk a few into staying for the DS to no avail. Still about 125 voters attended DS, much better than the 50 or so the last few years. (Please click here for video of the DS.)

Jesse Morrell was the recipient of this year's ORCSD Distinguished Service award, presented by Denise Day.  I've known Jesse since I was first welcomed into CSDC fifteen years ago by her son Joe, who was then CSDC's unofficial ambassador though not yet three years old. While I've been griping all these years, Jesse's been volunteering in the district, especially around athletics, and Joe grew into a ORHS senior basketball star. Congratulations Jesse, this is a very well-deserved award.

There was some excitement right after Jesse's award when the superintendent fell off his chair.  Probably due to the preceding concert, the district set up temporary staging for the board table in front of the actual stage.  The staging had various gaps where the panels came together and the leg of the superintendent's chair went through one.  He was a bit bruised but ultimately fine.  The fall and its aftermath were not captured on the official video; we need to talk to Alexander about his directorial choices. I said the accident could have been avoided if we only were in a recital hall with the stage at floor level, which is of course part of the plan for the new middle school.

There was another drawn out pitch for the new middle school, which I suppose was inevitable.  About the only controversy at the DS were the three questions I asked.  I intended them all to be softballs too.  The district whiffed all three at DS, though they have since recovered on the first.  I'll talk about them in separate sections.

Five Year Middle School Finance Plan

As I mentioned, the district kept the budget very tight this year in an effort to get the school passed.  It looks like a regular budget year, total impact kept within 3.25%, not a year where a giant new expense was added. If passed, bond payments will consume six or seven percent of the ORCSD budget.

I've been going to school board meetings, so I believe there's actually a plan to keep it this way for the next five years; to totally incorporate the new school into the usual budget increases.  The plan mostly bridges the next three years; after three years the high school bond is paid off and that money is freed up to help carry the middle school (It's about 30% of the new bond payment).   It's a combination of some creative financing (interest only first year), some drawing on existing trust funds, some delaying of capital projects, retirement incentives and some genuine belt tightening.  They didn't mention this multi-year plan at all when they presented the budget at DS so I asked.

Instead of talking about this plan, Chairman Newkirk punted.  He said next year would be difficult (yes, they have to come up with a million dollars or so) and started going on about a committee.  I had been telling you folks that the district had a plan to keep the tax increases down, and here the chair wouldn't even say that in public.  I was a bit shaken; like I said I thought the question was a softball.

The superintendent straightened it out at the next board meeting.  He reiterated the plan.  He confirmed that next year will be the hardest. Overall there are no guarantees that the plan will be executed as the current board cannot bind the decisions of future boards.  But I believe I'm correct in telling you the middle school bond budget is not intended to be a one year bait-and-switch with taxes shooting up next year.  There is a plan to keep all increases over the next few years within the usual 3.25% goal, at which point the district will have absorbed the now constant bond payments (probably around $2.7M) into the usual operating budget.

Three Percent Raise for the Teachers Guild

The warrant shows the aggregate raise for the teachers for the next five years, ranging from $627K to $772K a year.  The superintendent rather offhandedly said this was a 3% raise.  I searched the budget but couldn't find the total spending on the guild members (that's the teachers' union).  So I asked at the DS "3% of what?"  Business Administrator Caswell replied $16 million, of which $772K is 5% not 3% as I pointed out at the podium.  Sue offered we had to add 25% to reflect benefits, which brings the first year raise to 700/(16000*1.25) = 3.5%.  Close but something's not adding up.

They don't seem to know the total spending on the guild, so saying the raise is 3% of it is at best an estimate.  My pet peeve is when someone makes up some numbers and then presents them to me as fact.

Motion to Restrict the Article from Reconsideration

After the voters voted to move each article to the warrant, member Brian Cisneros moved to restrict the article from reconsideration.  This was new; it hadn't happened in the eight or so previous DSs that I'd paid attention to.  After the last time, near the end of the meeting, I asked why.  Member Cisneros withdrew the motion instead of answering.

The reason for these motions is to avoid the scenario where the Deliberative Session runs long, most folks leave before the end, and the few folks left reopen the articles and redo all the votes the way they want.  That hasn't happened during my time, but I suppose you can never be too careful. It didn't seem particularly warranted (ha!) for the last article, which was the one I questioned.

ORCSD Informs the Citizenry About the New Middle School

The superintendent reported they did over 120 information sessions for the new school, presenting the plan at gatherings from small house parties to big community events. The district itself is not allowed to advocate; presumably they only informed.

All this week through Monday before election day the district continues to give tours to demonstrate how awful the current middle school building is.  Informational only, of course.  All the stuff they used to cover up on parent's day are now the big stops on the tour.  I'm guessing broken HVAC, rusty pipes, leaky sewage, the worse the better.  There's still this afternoon and Monday left; I really want to find the time.

Corona Virus May Disrupt Official and Unofficial Field Trips in April and May

At the last board meeting there was a long discussion of issues around the Corona virus.  The district is making preparations to handle local cases.  There's already been a staff member returning from Italy who's been asked to quarantine.  In order to discourage sick workers from coming in so they get paid, the board gave the superintendent permission to continue to pay hourly workers asked to voluntarily quarantine and to not consume sick days for such a quarantine.

The superintendent was greatly concerned with pending field trips in April and May.  The high school Studio Orchestra is sending 40 kids (including my daughter) to New York City to play at Lincoln Center among other things, quite an honor.  That's an official field trip, run by Mr. LaForce, which the district can choose to cancel as conditions warrant.

That's in contrast to the unofficial field trips planned.   These are international travel, including the string orchestra going to England, students volunteering in Tanzania (again including my daughter) and I think a trip to France as well.  These are trips organized by an ORCSD teacher, but not officially run by the school district.  I'm not sure but I don't believe the board approves these like a regular field trip, though they are generally kept informed.

The decisions whether these unofficial trips are cancelled are in the hands of tour companies or travel agencies.  The district doesn't make that decision.  The London trip requires a large group; it would only take a few parents pulling out their children to cause the entire trip to be cancelled.

There was concern about whether the parents would get their money back under various scenarios.  The superintendent claims that they were very up front with the parents that these were not official district trips.  Each trip came with travel insurance offered (but not required) so reimbursement will depend on the fine print of the various policies if the parents availed themselves of the insurance.

I personally have no idea if I was offered and if I bought travel insurance for the Tanzania trip -- gotta look into that.

Mast Way Principal Search Nearing its End

The district has narrowed the field to two candidates for principal of Mast Way.  One of them is current acting principal Misty Lowe; the outside candidate was unnamed, at least at the board meeting.  There's a plan for a meet & greet and question session with each candidate for parents after school at Mast Way.  The event is this Monday, March 9, 4-6 at Mast Way.

ORYA Corrects Misstatements Without Admission

The ORYA saga continues.  This time the issue is scheduling field time.  The district approved a new policy detailing the procedure.  In order to give preference to groups with ORCSD students the policy requires the groups submit a roster with the name and address of the athletes along with their application. 

The story, as I gather from the discussion at the board table, is that the rosters were due on a certain date and ORYA failed to turn theirs in.   The athletic director gave them a poke and few more weeks but still no roster.  He then allocated to field time according to policy, generally favoring Maximum Velocity, a group that fully complied with the procedure.  This apparently resulted in an email or two from ORYA unfairly blaming ORCSD for their poor schedule.  I haven't seen these; it would be great if somebody out there please posts a copy as a comment.

The superintendent met with the executive director and president of ORYA to try to get things back on track.  At the superintendent's request, ORYA drafted a letter to their athletes and parents stating what a wonderful and mutually beneficial relationship they have with ORCSD.  Board Member Klein points out that the letter fails to address the actual mischaracterizations in the emails.  The superintendent said he didn't ask ORYA to do that.

A few people have been asking about the letter I drafted to the Lee Select Board about ORYA.  I wrote it on facebook group Neighbor Lee, which not everyone in the district can access.  Here it is; I haven't actually sent it to the board yet.

Dear Lee Select Board,

It has come to my attention that the Town of Lee favors ORYA, the Oyster River Youth Association, over other similar youth associations operating in the region. ORYA is a non-profit corporation with over six hundred thousand do
llars of annual revenue, including a direct cash grant from the Town of Lee. Additionally, ORYA enjoys free and preferred use of Town of Lee fields. Other youth associations in the area, such as Seacoast United and Maximum Velocity FC, do not receive a subsidy and actually pay to use our facilities.

To my knowledge, none of the youth associations besides ORYA is roiled in a national scandal involving a coach plotting to injure one of the child athletes in his care. There are further questions involving brazenly large salaries and expenses at ORYA which were to be resolved by a public audit that seems to have occurred but for which the report does not appear to be publicly available.

I think in the interest of fairness, and frankly liability, the Town of Lee must not favor a disgraced youth association over all the others. I urge a parity in which the town funds no youth organizations and allows each access to town facilities under identical terms.

I could conceivably support a plan where the money formerly allocated to ORYA was used to directly subsidize the child athletes of Lee when joining a qualified youth association of their choosing.

Very truly yours,
Dean Rubine, Lee NH

I suppose that's enough for this news dump.  See everybody at the polls on Tuesday.  I'm urging everyone to please vote YES on the new middle school!

Monday, February 3, 2020

First Annual Oyster River Deliberative Dinner Party, Tuesday Feb 4, 5pm, ORHS

Dinner and Music before the Deliberative Session

I'll see everybody at the high school cafeteria at 5 pm Tuesday February 4, which hopefully will be today or tomorrow by the time you read this.   This year the district is making a concerted effort (quite literally) to get folks to attend the Deliberative Session.  Here's the schedule:

5 pm  FREE spaghetti dinner (RSVP requested, not required)
6 pm  Concert by the ORMS Jazz Band and the ORHS Studio Orchestra
7 pm  Deliberative Session, a real election, free child care available

(My daughter is in the high school band and she was surprised I knew about her gig before she did.  That's just one example of the useful information that goes by at a school board meeting.)

The school district operates under what I think is called "SB 2", a form of government in which our election is divided into two parts. Tuesday Feb 4 is the the first part, the Deliberative Session, which is the vestige of the traditional Town Meeting.  A majority of district voters present may amend the warrant articles, which are the ballot questions.  On March 10 we have the second part, election day, where the eligible citizens of the district get to vote YES or NO on each question.

For serious voters in the district the Deliberative Session will be the first of five or six elections this year.  There's the presidential primary next week on February 11 (teachers' workshop day at school), municipal elections on March 10, state primary on September 8, the general election on November 3, and some of the towns have their own Deliberative Session.

 The district generally wants the warrant not to be amended at DS.  Lately only around 50 people have been showing up at ORCSD DS, which means 25 of them can rewrite the school budget and seriously screw up next year's plans.  I'm not sure if the district's attempt at getting more folks to vote at DS helps that; we'll see tomorrow I guess.

Really the only possible amendments at DS this year are to screw around with the middle school bond, effectively tanking the middle school for this cycle even before the March vote, and to add or subtract to the general budget of the school. The recommended school budget we're to approve is already $700,000 below the default budget (what we get if NO wins) so it's hard to see anyone amending this.

I hope and predict the warrant will survive DS unamended.  The school district wants you to participate and has arranged dinner and a show for you beforehand.  I've unofficially called it The Annual Oyster River Deliberative Dinner Party. If it works out this will be the first of many.  Hope to see everybody there.

Please check out my last post for more information about this year's warrant and deliberative session.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

ORCSD asks voters to spend $97.4 million, taxes rise 0.3% to 3.2%

District asks voters to spend almost $100 million next year

[Edit: Board member Williams tells me the middle school money will be spent over two years.]

The public hearing on the ORCSD budget and middle school bond was last Wednesday, January 15. The warrant has three major articles: the middle school project, the teacher's guild contract and the operating budget for the next school year, FY21.

The warrant is subject to amendment at Deliberative Session on Tuesday February 4, 7pm ORHS, and to approval by the voters on municipal election day, Tuesday March 10, 2020 at your town's polling place.  You'll already know where it is and be registered if you vote in the presidential primary on February 11.

Article 3 is the 25 year middle school bond, principal $49.85M, call it $50M.  There's some creative financing going on as the district is asking for $625K for the first year's debt service.  The level debt plan they chose (constant interest+principal payment, like a typical mortgage) would have a typical annual cost of $2.6M (at 2.15%) but there have been moves to keep the debt service from growing too fast.  The high school bond is paid off in the 23-24 school year and I think our share of the service on that is about 35% of the expected service on the middle school bond.  The government aid on the high school bond is not available for the middle school bond.  Article 3 requires a 60% supermajority to pass.

Article 5 is the teachers' contract, asking for collective raises of $627K in FY21, $772K in FY22 and about $700K in each of the following three years.  It seems like this is a five year contract -- I thought the usual practice was a three year contract so I need to check up on this. [Edit:  Yes, this is the first five year contract.]  I think I heard the superintendent say this was a 3% raise, which would be historically large, in exchange for concessions on health care, namely an optional high-deductible plan.  I'd check the percentage myself but I couldn't find the denominator, the total spent on guild members.  If $772K is 3% that implies the guild is $27M out of $48M, 56% of the budget.

I'm always on the lookout for a meeting or a show to attend, so I accidentally wandered into a guild meeting in the ORHS auditorium, maybe the day before the first day of school in late August. They ushered me out about the time I realized what it was. Sorry about that, teachers' guild.

Article 4 is the usual budget, asking voters for $47.5M.  The default budget, what we get if NO wins, is $700K higher.  So this budget should pass easily.  Do the usual naysayers vote NO in this case?  Only the ones who can't understand the question as written or the truly ornery, I suppose. The board kept things tight this year, and plans to for the next few years, so the middle school won't cause a large tax spike, just the usual annoying 3.25%. It's out of the board's control how the increase is spread among the towns.

The expected tax rise if all the warrant articles pass, including the middle school, teachers contract and district budget, is 0.3% in Lee (a 7 cent predicted increase on the millage), 2.0% in Madbury (+44 cents)  and 3.2% in Durham (+57 cents).  This doesn't account for the new assessments which come out in October.  I believe Durham expanded its tax base last year so I expect the millage will not increase quite as much as predicted here, though the lack of an asterisk gives me pause.

Middle School Marketing Continues

The new middle school project has a great web page full of all sorts of information on the project.  According to the superintendent the district itself isn't allowed to campaign for the new school directly.  The superintendent has been attending informational dinners hosted by Oyster River residents where he presents the plan, presumably without any cajoling.

There's been a citizen committee formed, Go Vote ORMS, which will directly advocate.  I've been too busy to join but I do get their emails.  They seem like they're doing great stuff.  Around town I personally haven't really noticed much.  Presumably their efforts will become more visible as the voting date approaches.

The $50M bond doesn't include the $800K spent this year on planning, mainly with architectural firm Lavallee Brensinger.  Everyone understands that getting 60% of the voters to agree on the bond is a challenge, so much of the effort involves bringing the public along.  There are a series of pretty postcards on various aspects of the project.  The architects have also produced video fly-through animations, which are much easier to digest than architectural drawings. The people in the video are all frozen in place like statues. They're fine, just a bit shocked by the price tag.

Like everybody else I'd prefer not to pay for a new school, but it does seem like the old middle has outlived its useful life. It's a shame that the newer parts of the old building can't be repurposed (the gym area was built in 1996), say as a Durham Community Center, but space and safety considerations have nixed that idea.  

There doesn't seem to be anything to be gained by waiting, as maintenance costs on the old building and construction costs on the new one will only increase.  Currently municipal bond interest rates are really low, the most recent issues at 2.15%. I suppose we could try to hold out for some federal or state building aid, but there's no particular reason to believe any of that is forthcoming anytime soon. So I strongly believe a YES vote on March 10, 2020 is in the best interests of the district and its taxpayers.

Deliberative Session Tuesday February 4, 7 pm at ORHS

The Deliberate Session is February 4th, 7pm in the ORHS auditorium.  I can't emphasize enough that this is a real election. A majority of voters at the Deliberative Session can amend the existing warrant articles (also known as the ballot questions). The voters then vote on the amended articles on March 11th.

You must be eligible to vote in one of the three towns to be given a voting card at the DS. Sometimes but not always 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.  

You might want to register to vote now if you want to participate.  Many of you will want to vote in the presidential primary on February 11 anyway.  Same day registration will definitely be available in the primary, but it's best to avoid the long line by registering ahead of time.

Hardly anyone shows up at DS, usually between 50 and 120 voters. So you and your majority of 25 may rewrite the budget. Or stop it from being rewritten. A few years ago the football question got mangled at Deliberative Session which complicated the discussion the following year. 

The law says warrant articles cannot be amended to eliminate the subject matter.  For a long time the accepted rule was that the wording on ballot questions could not be changed at DS, only certain dollar amounts. But a court ruling a few years ago now allows for broader changes.  It's usually just as easy to change dollar amounts for the same effect, potentially avoiding legal challenge.  For example if the middle school bond amount is amended to $50,000 instead of $50,000,000 that effectively kills the middle school project for this year because passed or not, a school can't be built for $50,000.

There are certain parts of the warrant prescribed by law (including the default budget and negotiated contracts) which cannot be amended at DS.  So besides the middle school bond, only the district operating budget may be amended.  Since it's already $700K below the default budget, it's not clear what amendment to make.  If some anti-tax folks successfully lower it even further, there would probably be a campaign to get the voters to support the district by voting NO.  We'd be taxed an extra $700K but the district probably would stick to its plan and that $700K wouldn't be spent, ending up in the year end fund balance and returned to the taxpayers the next year, in the form of a lower tax bill.

Unlike the past few years, I won't be traveling and I'll be able to attend DS this year.  See everybody there!