Sunday, March 7, 2021

Voting guide to the March 9, 2021 ORCSD Election

Hello everybody. Election day is this Tuesday, March 9, 2021.  Here's my annual voting guide where I review the Oyster River School District Ballot.  In the last section I'll go through the ballot article by article, tell you what it means, and tell you which way I'm voting. That's the biased part.

I'll keep it unbiased until then. If you just want to know how to vote and where to find information on and from the candidates and the ballot questions, you can skip the biased part which follows; it will be clearly marked.


Breaking News 9pm 3/7: I've been writing this for two days and missed the news that at 10am 3/5 Nicolas Alcocer has withdrawn and endorsed his opponent Brian Cisneros in the race for Lee representative to the school board.  That leaves the incumbent Cisneros running unopposed, so let me be the first to say congratulations Mr. Cisneros on winning another term on the Oyster River School Board. 

It's been an eventful week in Oyster River, with an impactful school board meeting sandwiched between two virtual Candidates Nights, excellently hosted and moderated by the Mast Way and Moharimet PTOs.  

Assistant Superintendent Todd Allen will retire effective this June 30.   The shocked school board received the news in non-public session around a half hour after the main public part of the meeting had ended.  They came back into public session to accept the retirement and tell some stories about Todd.

Tom Newkirk, who has been chair of the school board since 2014, announced he will not seek the chair again.  He will remain on the school board; his term runs another year.

The new board selects its chair as its first act after being elected, on 3/17. It's anyone's guess who the new chair will be this time.  In the past, running for vice chair has been a good way to telegraph your hope of being chair, and winning vice chair has been a good way to indicate you have the support of the board.  Member Michael Williams is the current vice chair.  The board chose him over member Denise Day last March. Member Day had been vice chair since March 2016. Former member Kenny Rotner, who sadly passed away last summer, cast the deciding vote for vice chair last year.

In other news all four schools are opening for more in-person learning.  The high school will bring in the 55% of the students who want to, two days per week, starting this Monday, 3/8.  Pursuant to the governor's order, so will the middle school, though the district has filed an appeal to try to continue the current model.  The board voted that the elementary schools will open for students Wednesdays starting April 9, over the objections of principals Lowe and Goldsmith.

There's some more detail about all this in my previous post.

Election Day Information

Election Day is Tuesday March 9, 2021.  Eligible citizens in the three towns can vote a school district ballot.  If you're a US citizen at least 18 years old residing in one of the three towns, you're eligible. Vote at your local town polling place like any other election.  If you're not already registered, same day registration is available.  It's best to bring ID, and if you need to register, proof of address like a utility bill, but you can still vote even if you don't bring those by signing an affidavit they'll give you.

Where and when to vote depends on where you live. Here's where and when to vote and some links to the town ballots, which you'll be given in addition to a school district ballot:

Durham, vote at Oyster River High School 7 am to 7 pm. Durham voting informationballotcandidate profiles.

Lee, vote at Lee Transfer Station 7 am to 7 pm (I know it's a Tuesday but please don't bring trash). Lee voting informationballot questions,  candidatesmap for transfer station voting.  They want you to bring your own black marker or black pen and a hard surface to write on.  Your car is your voting booth; they'll accommodate multiple voters in a car but come alone for maximum privacy.

Madbury, vote at Madbury Town Hall 11 am to 7pm.  Madbury voting information and ballot questions, In addition to the daytime election with the voting booths and Sharpies, Madbury has a town meeting, 7:30 pm at Moharimet School, to vote on town questions.  The school district part is in the daytime.

School Board Candidates

The Oyster River school board has seven seats, three town-specific (one each Durham, Lee, Madbury) and four at-large.  They all have three years terms; this year it's the three town-specific seats that are up for election.  In addition, there's an election for someone to serve out the remaining year of Kenny Rotner's term in an at-large seat. Kenny sadly passed away last summer; Yusi Turell was appointed by the board to serve the five months until election day.  It's rare to have four seats up at once; the last time was March 2012, the election that started this blog

To run for a town-specific seat you must live in the town; any voter in the district can run for the at-large seats.  All the voters in the district are given identical ballots and can vote in all four races; you don't have to live in Lee to vote for the Lee representative to the Oyster River school board.

It's been an exciting election for school board this year.  It started with a total of twelve candidates, with an incumbent and two challengers filing to run for each of  four school board seats.  We've had three [edit 3/7 10pm] four withdrawals, Debra Cavenaugh and Nicolas Alcocer from the Lee race, Kevin Abbott from Madbury, and Jeff Fortin from Durham.  Only Ms. Cavenaugh withdrew early enough to have her name removed from the ballot. 

There's a surfeit of information this year, with the elementary PTOs really stepping up, running a facebook site as well as two Candidates Nights.  I'm just going to list links where various information about the candidates has been collated.

2021 ORCSD School Board Candidate Information [PTOs' facebook page] 
2021 ORCSD School Board Candidate Biographies
2021 PTO School Board Candidate Questionaire
2021 Teacher's Guild School Board Candidate Questionaire

Candidates Night 3/4/2021

The two debates on Candidates Night (Tuesday 3/2 Madbury & At-Large, Thursday 3/4 Durham and Lee) were very well done and worth watching if you have three or four hours.  I thought I heard a rumor of transcripts which would probably be quicker to digest but I haven't found any.

The two candidates for the Durham school board seat are Yusi Turell (facebookweb) and Eric Mason (no candidacy site known to me but he's CEO of RYSE Marketing & Communications). Ms. Turell is essentially the incumbent; she currently holds an at-large seat.  Jeff Fortin (facebook) has withdrawn but will appear on the ballot.

The two candidates [Edit 9pm 3/7]  only candidate currently running for the Lee school board seat is the incumbent Brian Cisneros (facebook).  Opponent Nicolas Alcocer (facebook) withdrew on 3/5 and endorsed Cisneros.  Alcocer's name will remain on the ballot. Debra Cavanaugh withdrew from the Lee race early and will not appear on the ballot. 

The two candidates for the Madbury school board seat are the incumbent Dan Klein (web) and Michelle Dunbar (facebook). Kevin Abbott (facebook) has withdrawn but will appear on the ballot.

The three candidates for the At-Large seat with a one year term are Al Howland (web), Matt Durkee (facebook) and Jill Piparo (facebook).   Let's call Al Howland the incumbent; he's served in the Durham seat since 2012 though this time he's seeking the one-year at-large seat. 

School Ballot

For my last bit of unbiased information, I present the school district ballot.

Ballot Questions

OK, now we go through the ballot questions. This is the biased part, because in addition to I hope fairly explaining the questions, I tell you how I'm voting and why.
TL;DR: For school board in 2021 I'm voting for the incumbents: Yusi Turell, Brian Cisneros, Dan Klein and Al Howland and I'm voting YES on all the questions. I'll summarize why below; for more detail, please see this post.

Lee voters: I'm really looking forward to voting for Katrin Kasper for select board.  Not that I don't have a soft spot for old white men, being one myself, but I've known Katrin has been working hard for the town and the schools for at least a decade and I would love to see what her energy could do for the Lee Select Board.  Among many other committees, she's been on the Oyster River Long Range Planning Committee for the long term, at least a decade, and has relatively recently taken over as chair. The LRPC is the district's oldest committee, and its enrollment projections play an important role in the budgeting, hiring and long term planning of the school district.  

OK, back to the school ballot. 
Article 1 elects the moderator. For as long as I've been paying attention Richard Laughton has been the only person ever to run for moderator, and that's true in 2021, so I'm voting for Mr. Laughton. The main function of the moderator is to run the Deliberative Session. I sometimes see him running between polling places on Election Day, but I don't know why.  

There's something of a family dynasty going on in Oyster River.  Beloved citizen and former school board chair Shirley Thompson was Mr. Laughton's mother-in-law and I see a District Clerk Jessica Laughton at the top right corner of the ballot, who I'm guessing is related.  

Article 2 elects the school board members.  There are four separate races, three town specific seats and one at-large seat.  Let's go through them:

Durham representative (3 year term)
      O   Eric Mason
      O   Yusi Turell
      O   Jeffrey Fortin (withdrawn but will appear on the ballot)
      O   ___________________  (write in)

I'm voting for Yusi Turell.  I think she's been great in her five months since being appointed to the board.  Among other things, her efforts have all district schools opening to more in-person learning in accordance with CDC mitigation guidelines, starting tomorrow at the high school, soon after at the middle school, and the elementary schools, already at two in-person days a week, will open more in April.  Yusi's run a great race, out there answering every question, with her opponent Erik Mason barely showing up (he skipped Candidates Night and one of the questionnaires, and I don't think he has a web presence for his candidacy) and her other opponent Jeffrey Fortin withdrawing.

Lee representative (3 year term)
      O   Nicolas Alcocer   (withdrawn but will appear on the ballot)
      O   Brian Cisneros
      O   ___________________  (write in)

Brian Cisneros is the current Lee representative to the Oyster River school board.  He's been among the board members trying hardest to increase in-person time for students.  Brian brings a lot of expertise to the table as his day job is business administrator of SAU #61, the Farmington school district. 

On Candidates Night 3/4 I got to watch his opponent Nicolas Alcocer, who has good values and would do Lee and Oyster River proud as our representative. He didn't have anywhere near Brian's knowledge or experience so I'm voting for Brian.  [Edit 9pm 3/7] Mr. Alcocer apparently agrees; he's withdrawn and endorsed Brian Cisneros.

Madbury representative (3 year term)
      O   Michelle Dunbar
      O   Daniel Klein
      O   Kevin Abbott (withdrawn but will appear on the ballot)
      O   ___________________  (write in)

Dan Klein is the current Madbury representative to the school board; he's running for his third term. He's done great job on the negotiating committee and the policy committee and much more. I'm voting for Dan.

His opponent Michelle Dunbar has posted on facebook she believes the presidential election was stolen, yada yada. I started this blog in 2012 because a school board member was tweeting inappropriately about Michelle Obama's body; this election stuff is arguably more damaging. Ms. Dunbar and I are not facebook friends; this was a publicly shared post made on November 5 that's still up as I write this.  I don't know how she currently feels as the PTOs chose not to ask my question on Candidates Night.

I thought Ms. Dunbar did well on Candidates Night; it was a civil discussion where she represented her point of view forthrightly.  I don't know who's right in the CDC versus NH DHHS guidelines debate -- that's a reasonable argument to have.  Ms. Dunbar was in favor of the school voucher bill, which I find unforgivable.  Personally you can believe what you want, freedom hell yeah, but as a public school board member at a minimum you need to be against proposed laws that take state money away from public schools, which then has to be extracted from the local property taxpayers, that's you, gentle reader. Ms. Dunbar also said she would vote NO on article three, the school budget.  It's largely symbolic; should NO win we get the default budget and your local school tax bill would be reduced by a miniscule 0.2%.   

Kevin Abbott has withdrawn but will appear on the ballot.

At-Large representative (1 year term)
      O   Allan Howland
      O   Jill Piparo 
      O   Matt Durkee
      O   ___________________  (write in)

I'm voting for Al Howland, who's been the Durham representative to the board since 2012.  He's running to serve an additional year before turning all his attention to Durham, where he's a town councilor.  He wasn't going to run, but with Kenny Rotner's passing I think Al feels an obligation to finish the work they started.  We're lucky have Al, who now has loads of experience under his belt.  His opponents Matt Durkee and Jill Piparo also did an excellent job on Candidates Night, though they couldn't hope to answer with the depth that Al brings. I look forward to supporting one or both of them next year, when this this seat (and another at large seat) is up for election and I do not believe Al plans to run.

Article 3 is the district budget, asking the taxpayers permission to raise and appropriate 50.2 million dollars.  If NO wins we get the default budget, essential expenditures only as prescribed by law, 50.1 million dollars.  Despite popular opinion, the board has kept the increase to the bare minimum while wedging in a new middle school.  

I don't want to go into a long diatribe, but maybe just a couple numbers about how well the board has managed the finances in the the years since 2012, when Tom Newkirk, Maria Barth, Al Howland and Ed Charle ousted the bad board.  Checking NH DOE  (FY13, FY20), Oyster River's Cost Per Pupil went from $16,553 in FY13 to $18,244 in FY20, an increase of $1691, 10%.   Over the same period the state average went from $13,459 to $16,844, an increase of  $3385, 25%.  That's two or two and a half times larger than our increase, depending on how you look at it.

The truth is the school board has pretty consistently delivered budgets, by which I mean the total amount of money asked of the towns, that increase at 3% a year.  That's compared to an inflation rate that's around 2%, and an inflation rate of school costs that's in the 3.5% annual range judging from the state CPP.  This year the board managed 3% while financing half a middle school. 

So why is the tax rate so hurtful, hitting Lee and Madbury with forecasted increases of 10% and 9% respectively on the local school line, and Durham only 2%?  There's some similar story every couple of years, and everyone wrongly blames the school board.  The answer is the way the bill is split, a combination of the apportionment formula agreed to when the cooperative was created, and the state adequacy aid granted directly to the towns.   

The apportionment agreement splits half the school budget, half the bill, to a given town proportionally to the number of students in the town, and the other half proportionally to the equalized real estate valuation of each town.  Those numbers move around pretty much randomly year to year as students come and go, and as various home sales that year get compared to their appraisals, affecting the equalized valuations of the towns.  Then the state weighs in, granting each town state adequacy aid according to a formula that tries to help towns with students from lower incomes and other considerations. 

So even though this year the district kept to its nice and steady if annoying 3% annual rise, state aid was reduced this year compared to last year's rather generous aid.  This affects Lee and Madbury more than Durham because of the state aid formula helps Lee and Madbury more than Durham.  

That's just the story this year.  A few years ago it was a change in the equalization ratio, where a few house sales that year made Lee appear like it has appreciated greatly in value relative to the other towns, making Lee responsible for a larger share of the school bill.   There's always some specific reason for the spike; the real problem is the entire system has this inherent churn that's out of the district's control.

Anyway, I'm voting YES on the budget; the board kept it tight as I tried to illustrate, and if NO wins you only save $0.2% on your taxes, that's $20 off a $10,000 tax bill.  Enjoy a large number six meal with an extra large fries and a shake with your savings. 

You can read more about the tax rate this year in this post from January.

In Article 4 the board switched to a one year contract with the bus drivers, a total increase of $18,070 split among all the drivers.  That doesn't sound like much to me; I expected more.  In recent years the district has been forced to pay more than its negotiated wages because it's so hard to attract enough bus drivers around here, even before the pandemic.  It probably makes sense to do the contract annually with the bus driver market so difficult. I'm voting YES.

Article 5 is another one year contract, this time with ORPaSS, Paraeducators and Support Staff.  The raise is in line with previous years, actually less than the 2020-2021 amount approved in 2018.  I don't know why it's only a one year contract; it's probably due to the pandemic. I'm voting YES -- those paras and support staff do hard jobs for not that much money that's risky during a pandemic. 

There were some slides that went along with the Public Hearing that I can no longer find on the district's website that may have explained this.  Why can't they just leave those links alone until after the election?

When I say the district has kept the increase to 3%, that includes all these warrant articles recommended by the school board.

Article 6 is slightly difficult to understand due to the lawyerly language.  The district is currently allowed to maintain an emergency fund.  The maximum amount of the fund is proscribed by law to 2.5% of the net assessment; for us that works out to around $900,000, which the district had collected over a number of years from the fund balance, the appropriated but unspent money at year end.  This year they used $500K of it to try to offset the tax increases.  There's no way to direct it to just Lee and Madbury so it didn't have that much of an effect.

I'm voting YES.  If this passes it will double the amount of the emergency fund the district can have to almost $2 million.  They'll build it up slowly over the years until they need it again for a big shock.  

Article 7 gets a fund rolling whose purpose is to purchase the middle school solar array when it's up for sale.  The way it works is the initial financing for the array is done by outside investors; Oyster River pays for power from the array for five operating years and then has the option to purchase the array outright, which is a good deal so we're saving a little every year to do so.  I'm voting YES.

That boilerplate about "No amounts to be raised from taxation" is very misleading, if you ask me. Money from the fund balance was raised from the taxpayers last year, so doesn't need to be "raised from taxation" this year in the new budget.  However, if left unspent it would go back to the towns and reduce this year's taxes.  

See everybody at the polls.

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