Monadnock community members tell board: We want change

by Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff
| Posted: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 12:00 pm

SWANZEY CENTER — Call it a mutiny on the Monadnock Regional School District ship. Or at least the beginning of it.

More than 300 parents, teachers and community members crowded into the auditorium at Monadnock Regional Middle/High School Tuesday night for a school board meeting where they aired everything they believe is wrong or has gone wrong in the district over the past year.

They also got behind a resolution drafted by a parent and community group called Monadnock United, focused on supporting transparency and community collaboration in how the schools in the district operate.

Emotions ran high, and tempers flared as teachers and community members told school board members they weren’t putting the district’s children first.

Teachers accused school officials of creating a hostile work environment, which the board denied.

“We come here because the administration is not informing people of staffing cuts, changing work assignments, and judging the school district as being broken just because they can,” said Diane Hardy, a guidance counselor at at Cutler Elementary School in Swanzey.

While Hardy’s comments were followed by a standing ovation, audience members weren’t as complimentary toward remarks some made that the district’s costs were too much of a burden for Monadnock taxpayers.

Troy Selectmen Chairman William T. Matson was booed as he told the audience something had to be done to bring down the cost of running the school district so Troy residents can pay their tax bills.

Many residents can’t afford to pay property taxes, and the recent change in the formula towns follow to determine how much they owe Monadnock has sent some residents who were just making it over the edge, he said.

“Folks can’t afford the type of education we have,” he said.

Troy is Monadnock’s second-largest town, but one of its poorest. The formula to divvy up costs is now based on 75 percent student enrollment and 25 percent property valuation.

Monadnock also covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury and Swanzey.

The audience also wasn’t happy to hear board members repeatedly ask where they were at deliberative session in February. Board members said they are following orders from the majority of voters who participated in the session, and voted at the district’s annual meeting in March. Of Monadnock’s 4,444 registered voters, 122, or 2.7 percent, attended the deliberative session.

“It’s nice you’re all here now,” school board Chairman Richard H. Thackston 3rd of Troy said. “But you need to do more than be a summertime soldier or a sunshine patriot.”

About 70 percent of voters participating in the school district’s annual meeting passed the budget, which was lower than the one approved the year before, he said. In addition, roughly 65 percent gave their approval to an advisory-only petition warrant article asking the school board to lower the budget even more over the next five years, he said.

“If you all go away and never come back, you absolutely will have no effect,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting, which lasted nearly four hours, had been scheduled for the school’s library, but was moved to the auditorium in anticipation of the crowd, school officials said.

Monadnock United members presented their resolution on bettering the district to the school board, and billed it as a first step in making positive change and more open communication.

The group, a grassroots effort, began last year with a Facebook page. It has operated under the radar of school officials until recently.

Fitzwilliam resident Kathy Hurst said Monadnock students and employees deserve better, and took the board to task on the district’s mission to be the best school district in New Hampshire.

“You say ‘best district in the state’; the best at what?” she asked.

Board members agreed the best way to handle the resolution was to send it to the education and policy committee for review.

A unanimous vote in favor followed. So did applause and cheers from the audience.

Meanwhile, board members occasionally bickered with one another, moreso as the evening went on, about the management of the board and how votes at the past two meetings on Monadnock teachers contract were handled.

On multiple occasions, school board Chairman James I. Carnie of Richmond and member Patricia Bauries of Swanzey tried to redirect the meeting to revisit the teachers contract and the votes taken on the contract at the previous two school board meetings on May 27 and June 3.

Each time, other board members chastised, and eventually blocked, their efforts by votes that reflected a split in the 12-member board.

“The board has been shattered in half,” Bauries said at one point.

At the May 27 meeting, the board voted to change the district’s contribution to the insurance pool to an amount lower than what was outlined in the teachers contract.

In the same vote, the board also decided not to allow any unused money from the pool to go toward reducing teachers’ insurance premiums for the next year.

A week later, on June 3, the board passed three motions, including one to rescind the vote from May 27.

Bauries said another vote to change the composition of the negotiating committee was invalid because it didn’t have the two-thirds majority to pass, in accordance with school board policy.

Four board members, including Bauries, resigned their committee posts following that vote.

As the board tried to reorganize and reassign the committees Tuesday night, its efforts were met by opposition.

When Bauries tried to pin the situation on an invalid vote, Thackston said, “You still resigned.”