LANGDON — Members of the Fall Mountain Withdrawal Study Committee said that they remain undecided about whether to create a plan for Charlestown to leave the district, and still have questions about the potential impact on their towns in taxes or education.
While Charlestown plans to present its own budget plan at the next committee meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 11, representatives of the cooperating towns said on Wednesday that they do not even know if they will recommend a plan at this juncture.
“Your group has put together a plan, but we haven’t put together a plan,” said Sarah Vogel, of Acworth, to the committee Chair Albert St. Pierre, of Charlestown. “We have to decide if we are going to.”
Vogel pointed out that the withdrawal committee’s first purpose is not to create a plan, but to determine if withdrawal is feasible for all the parties.
“We were first supposed to decide if we recommend writing the plan,” she said, “And it seemed like we jumped into writing the plan, as if there was a presumption that that was what we were going to do.”
Several members said that they still need explanation from SAU 60 Chief Finance Officer Jim Fenn about his projected increases in administrative costs to run the SAU should Charlestown become its own district. According to budget projections sent to the committee in July, Fenn estimated over a $1.5 million increase to the 2021-22 district budget should Charlestown leave, including additional hires in the superintendent’s office for an assistant special education director and one to two support staff. According to SAU administrators, splitting the cooperative district into two districts will double or triple many areas of the supervisory workload. For example, administrative staff would have to manage audits, payroll and retirement reporting for three separate entities: the Charlestown School District, the Fall Mountain District and the SAU. The superintendent and chief finance officer would also have to attend more board meetings and participate in more union negotiations.
Steve Dalesso, a selectman from Walpole, questioned Fenn’s projections for new staff. While acknowledging that some portions of workloads might increase, that does not necessarily mean that the SAU needs to hire additional staff to adapt.
Additionally, Charlestown advisory committee member Terry Spilsbury said near the end of the meeting that Charlestown would “most likely” leave the SAU sometime after July 2022, so many of those projected new hires may be unnecessary beyond the first year of Charlestown’s withdrawal.
A meeting scheduled between Fenn and selectmen from the cooperating towns is slated for the first week of September. Lou Beam, a selectman from Langdon, said the meeting’s objective will allow Fenn to explain what drives those projected costs and look specifically at the impact on Walpole’s budget should Charlestown exit. Beam said that the impact on Walpole was the most relevant data to study because Walpole is the next largest of the towns after Charlestown.
Joseph Levesque, a school board member from Alstead, proposed looking at a number of situational budgets, not just one scenario. Levesque thought the committee needs to consider both budget numbers if Charlestown left the SAU in 2022 and if they remained.
Levesque also proposed looking at what the district would look like if Charlestown did not tuition their students back to Fall Mountain. Though Charlestown members repeatedly said that their plan is to tuition almost all of their students back to Fall Mountain Regional High School, and would create a contract to that effect, Levesque said that they are obligated to their taxpayers.
However, Levesque, Dalesso and Beam all said that the committee should make its best effort to explore a way to make Charlestown’s exit feasible. Rather than make a decision solely upon potential budget impact, the members said they should use the impact as a starting point to see how they can minimize it for every town’s benefit.
“I don’t want to hold anybody hostage,” Levesque said. “So we need to try to find a way for Charlestown that makes sense to the other four towns.”
“The key word is minimize,” Beam said. “First we need to learn what the impact is and then work through the withdrawal committee to minimize that impact.”