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!