WOODSVILLE, N.H. — The Fall Mountain Withdrawal Study Committee has two weeks to resolve a number of missing details in its plan for Charlestown’s withdrawal from the district, before the next State Board of Education meeting on Thursday, Dec. 12.
Last Thursday, the State Board of Education informed the Fall Mountain Committee Chair Albert St. Pierre and Charlestown attorney James O’Shaughnessy that the board cannot approve the plan as written until they provide specifics about the finances and logistics of Charlestown’s plan and how the remaining cooperative will operate with Charlestown’s departure.
“This sounds more like an aspiration than a plan,” Board Chair Drew Cline (District 4) told St. Pierre. “I was wondering if there’s some math involved in how you intend to execute the new district? Where the funding is going to come from? What the tax rates are going to be?”
Cline said he was particularly concerned about the financial feasibility for Charlestown to run independently, given the town’s low property value and narrow tax base. Cline questioned how the town expects to save money while taking on more administrative costs and overhead, without directly increasing taxes.
St. Pierre explained that the committee based the feasibility of Charlestown’s withdrawal partly on the assumption that Charlestown could operate independently on the same budget of $12.7 million it currently funds as a member of Fall Mountain. Charlestown already provides education for grades K-8 for its students, owns three school buildings and other town resources that St. Pierre said could help serve the new school system.
St. Pierre also said he believes Charlestown could recoup considerable money from Fall Mountain’s complicated funding system, which he says appears to charge Charlestown more than it should. In one example of the formula, St. Pierre said that the district was charging Charlestown based on a rate of 205 Charlestown students attending the high school, when St. Pierre claimed that Charlestown’s actual number was only 165.
But board members stated worry about the plan’s inability to answer concerns illuminated in minority report, a document compiled by the Fall Mountain Committee’s dissenting opinions. The minority report points to key unanswered questions, including how the cooperative will reapportion the district budget among the four remaining members.
Minority members Billy Stahl, Walpole, told the board that the plan lacks too many details and answers to allow voters to make an informed decision before the plan goes to a district-wide vote.
“There are so many details and so many parts lacking, I’m not sure what voters are going to vote on,” Stahl said.
Board member Cindy Chagron (At-large) expressed her concern that Charlestown’s plan does not appear to factor “economy of scale” into its per-pupil estimations. In cases of special education, administrative services and specialists, the cost-per-pupil is often less to serve larger student populations than smaller ones. Chagron told St. Pierre that she needs to be assured that Charlestown can provide an equivalent education as an independent district without adjusting its budget numbers.
Cline also questioned St. Pierre’s suggestion that Charlestown’s town librarian could serve as the school district’s librarian, saying that school librarians have different certification requirements from other librarians.
The board said that the plan must assure them that students will continue receiving the same quality of education following a separation. The board cannot make that determination based on the information provided.
“I don’t doubt that you want the best thing for the kids,” said Helen Honorow (District 5), “But it’s not [shown] here.”
O’Shaughnessy told the board that while the plan does not contain many details, it technically meets the legal requirements of the state statute. For example, the statute only requires a plan to detail new funding formulas if the formulas change. While the remaining districts will have to negotiate new funding formulas if the vote to withdraw passes, the Fall Mountain Committee lacks the authority to make those determinations for the lawful parties. Additionally, many frictions and conflicts between the communities make those outcomes difficult to project. In some withdrawal processes, a state official must take a role as moderator to facilitate negotiations.
“Plans cannot work out every single detail,” O’Shaughnessy said. “From here the plan goes to a vote and after the vote the parties will have to work out the details.
Cline said a plan does not need to make perfect projects, but demonstrate that the parties have a good plan in place.
“I like it to a business plan,” Cline said. “To some extent there will be unknowns, but you have a plan for that. If you go to a bank, your plan should explain how you plan to meet your revenue targets. That strategy may ultimately change, but at least you’re spelling out how you’re going to do it, with a formula and details.”
Several questions that the Fall Mountain Committee were asked to address include: an estimated cost for Charlestown students to tuition into Fall Mountain High School; the operational cost for the SAU to serve two districts, which the SAU said will require additional staff; a method to reapportion the operating budget between the remaining cooperative; what Charlestown’s district would provide and how it plans to fund it; and contingency plans for Charlestown should the remaining cooperative decide not to retake Charlestown’s student population.
The Fall Mountain Committee intend to meet at least twice in the next two weeks to work on the plan. The committee needs the plan approved in December to ensure enough time to add a question to the district warrant for voters to decide in March 2020.