LANGDON, N.H. — Charlestown residents at a public hearing Tuesday night criticized a school district proposal to appropriate the majority of the town’s one-time unanticipated aid it received in the 2020-2022 state budget for building security upgrades. The project cost is at least five times greater than proposed upgrades to the other cooperative towns.
More than 50 voters and stakeholders attended a budget presentation in the auditorium of Fall Mountain Regional High School, where SAU 60 Superintendent Lori Landry and Chief Finance Officer James Fenn explained a proposal for a $32.5 million operating budget for the 2020-2021 school year. The proposed cost is an increase of 3% — or $997,396 — from the current year. However, once calculating the substantive increases in local education aid from the state this year, every town in the cooperative would see a decrease in its tax rate under the budget proposal.
In additional warrant articles, voters in each town would be asked to consider a portion of the town’s one-time funding from the state budget to make security building upgrades. The cost and scope of each project varies, but expect to include improvements to intercom systems and installations of security cameras and electronic door locks at school entrances.
Each of these projects would be “tax neutral,” according to Fenn, because the funds for each project would come from either the town’s capital reserve fund or its one-time state funding.
But for Charlestown, the district is proposing a more extensive project: to construct new security entrances at each of Charlestown’s three schools, as well as upgrade door locks, cameras and intercom systems. The district is asking Charlestown voters to appropriate $816,000 of the town’s $973,244 expected one-time aid in fiscal year 2021 to fund the project.
“Could you explain why as much as 100 times is being spent at Charlestown’s three buildings as Langdon’s one building?” asked Terry Spilsbury of Charlestown.
Fenn said that the district ultimately plans to construct the same security entrances at every school in the district. The unanticipated acquisition of one-time funding opened the opportunity to address these projects.
“In Charlestown, the town is getting such a large chunk of money from the state that we are fortunate enough to put a secure entrance on each of the Charlestown buildings,” said Fenn. “I’m talking about an entrance like at the high school, where you come through the first set of doors but aren’t all the way into the building until you get through the second set of doors.”
Spilsbury pointed out that the amount that Charlestown receives is based on its community’s higher rate of poverty, and questioned why the district didn’t consider appropriating more of that money to alleviate tax impact.
School Board Chair Michael Herrington, of Charlestown, said that the intent of this public hearing was to get community feedback before the board finalizes the warrant articles at a later date.
Additionally, Charlestown voters have the option to reject the article, in which case that money will return to the taxpayers, according to Herrington. Though Herrington said that decision might carry less benefit to the community long term.
“If this project is something that has to be done, are you going to do it now, when it’s tax neutral, or are you going to do it in the years after, when you may not have that money?”
School Board Vice-Chair Mary Henry pointed out that the one-time tax relief has a backlash the following year, when taxes return to their previous levels.
Charlestown resident Gabe St. Pierre, a former school board member, criticized the district for not collaborating with the towns on these decisions.
“A year like this? That’s the cost of a fire truck,” St. Pierre said, in an allusion to the town’s need to replace its oldest fire engine, whose design is considered unsafe by modern standards.
Fenn said that the district has had this plan for security upgrades for a few years, but they have not prepared to implement it because funding was not available.