CHARLESTOWN, N.H. — With a pivotal ballot question facing voters in March, Charlestown residents and stakeholders held a passionate — and at times heated — discussion Thursday night on whether Charlestown should withdraw from the Fall Mountain School District.
The Charlestown Withdrawal Committee, a town-appointed advisory group who helped craft Charlestown’s plan to become an independent school district, presented their case for withdrawal to a packed room at the Old Town Hall on Summer Street. The Charlestown committee is not affiliated with the Fall Mountain Withdrawal Study Committee, a group of officials representing the five towns in the school district that created and approved the official withdrawal plan. However, the Charlestown committee’s work provided the fundamental argument for seeking withdrawal and a plan for Charlestown’s departure.
Terry Spilsbury, a Charlestown committee member, told the public that the creation of a Charlestown-only school board is the only practical way for Charlestown residents to gain control of school spending. The town’s local education tax rate of $24.02 per $1,000 of assessed property is the highest in New Hampshire, which Spilsbury partly attributed to Charlestown being regularly outvoted by the other cooperative towns on the school budgets.
“If we have an independent Charlestown school district, Charlestown voters will choose all of its school board members and vote out those who aren’t responsive,” Spilsbury said. “Town voters alone will have the right to vote the budget up or to defeat it, so you can bet that the school board members you elect will be responsive to your interests.”
But many residents, including Charlestown teachers, voiced their concerns about the soundness of the town’s plan, expressing doubts about the plan’s cost projections and the town’s readiness to weather unforeseen complications.
Donna Campbell, a Charlestown resident and teacher, said that while she believes the committee’s sincerity about wanting to retain its local teachers, Charlestown voters have often voted down contracts for Fall Mountain teachers and support staff in district-proposed budgets.
“Nobody wants to leave, but I don’t think there’s a person in this room who could, after working here for 27 years, say, ‘I’ll do the same exact job but do it for less money,’” Campbell said.
The committee said that their plan is not to downsize staff or consolidate school buildings, but to find savings through operational efficiencies and utilizing resources more effectively.
“When you look at our [presentations] and everything we’ve mentioned on Facebook, no savings were ever addressed in any relation to staffing, the teachers, janitors, bus drivers, the principals,” said Charlestown committee member Scott Wade. “We’re looking at budget process issues.”
However, some comments made at the presentation differed from committee comments during the previous months. For example, on Thursday committee member Alissa Bascomb told the public that “at this time, we’re not looking to cut any teachers or change any buildings.” Yet, at a meeting on Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2019 with the Fall Mountain Withdrawal Study Committee, Spilsbury told the Fall Mountain group that Charlestown would consider consolidating schools to reduce the budget.
“I’m not going to say that we do [cut positions],” Spilsbury said. “We’re going to look at the three schools and ask whether we move a grade into the middle school, or do we consolidate the elementary schools. What do we do to utilize the teachers in a way that’s as efficient as possible?”
At that same September meeting, Fall Mountain School Board Chair Michael Herrington told the Charlestown group that, because most of the school spending goes toward salaries and wages, which are contractual costs, any district looking to reduce its budget by Charlestown’s targeted amount will have to look at reducing positions.
District teacher and Charlestown resident Beth Fappiano urged residents to watch the recorded videos of what committee members said at the New Hampshire Board of Education meetings, when presenting Charlestown’s plan, to compare statements to the present presentation.
“Watch the clip,” Fappiano told the public. “Become educated. Make up your own minds. Get all the information. It’s the same thing I tell my students every single day. I don’t care what you decide, look at your sources, evaluate the information.”
Spillsbury explained that, based on the Charlestown committee’s research, he believes the proposed budgets, which were created by Fall Mountain’s Chief Financial Officer James Fenn, are inflated above the actual costs to operate.
Additionally, the first year proposed cost of $15.5 million for a Charlestown district is mostly to cover one-time transitional costs, including the hiring of three additional supervisory administrators to handle the additional work of managing an extra district, since the law requires Charlestown to remain in the supervisory union for the first year of withdrawal.
“That [$15.5 million] is not a real number,” Spilsbury told Fappiano. “I’ve told you before a number of ways in which that budget was not correct.”
Presuming that Charlestown forms its own supervisory union, which at the earliest point would be July 1, 2022, the Charlestown committee targets a proposed budget of approximately $14.4 million. At the September 2019 meeting, Spilsbury told the Fall Mountain committee that he believes Charlestown could manage a budget in the $14 million range, though Charlestown’s long-term plan would seek to bring that budget below $13 million.
The committee also said that Charlestown still intends to seek a tuition agreement with Fall Mountain Regional High School, to send at least 90% of its roughly 150-200 students, depending on how many families elect to utilize Charlestown’s school choice plan. Despite a letter from the Fall Mountain School Board to the Charlestown Selectboard on Jan. 8, in which the school board said it “does not feel it is the district’s best interest at this time” to pursue a tuition agreement with Charlestown, it remains unclear whether a future school board will adhere to that sentiment. Charlestown committee members also pointed to past conversations with officials from the cooperative towns that indicate a preference to avoid losing Charlestown’s students, who make up about 45% of the high school’s enrollment.
A district-wide vote on the withdrawal plan will take place on Tuesday, March 10. For the plan to pass, a majority of both Charlestown voters and district voters from all five towns must approve the plan.
Wade said that in the event that Charlestown voters pass the question but the district voters reject it, Charlestown expects to appeal the decision.
“If the majority of Charlestown votes to now withdraw, the conversation ends,” Wade said.