Sunday, April 6, 2008

School board autonomy - only in Concord

By Rick Watrous

Many residents may not realize it, but Concord has a unique division of city and school government. Separate city and school district charters from the state Legislature give the school board complete control over the school district budget. Whatever amount the school board decides they need for the Concord School District (the budget for 2008-2009 is $68.6 million), the City of Concord has no choice but to raise that money through property taxes.

Only nine people - the elected members of the Concord School Board - vote on the school budget. Some citizens question this arrangement. During last fall’s city council election, several council candidates voiced concern over their lack of control over the school budget, which accounts for the largest part of the Concord property tax bill.

It was not always like this. Up until 1961, Concord residents voted on the school board budget at the “annual meeting of the legal voters of the Concord Union School District” as it was then called. Similar to town meetings, voters would attend and approve or amend the budget proposed by the school board. The last such meeting occurred on April 12, 1961, when citizens approved a $2.2 million school budget.

On June 30, 1961 the Legislature approved a charter change for the Concord School District, eliminating this annual meeting and the public voting on the school budget, resulting in the process we have today. There is a public hearing on the proposed budget where members of the public can speak, but can not vote.

In 1981, then-City Councilor David Coeyman advocated for a ballot question as to whether Concord should be like other towns where the city council or board of aldermen have the final say on the school budget. The Concord Monitor quoted Coeyman saying, “I don’t think there’s ample justification for us to be unique in New Hampshire. The majority of the city councils in the state have bottom line appropriation authorities for their schools.”

Coeyman also raised the issue of the school board lacking ward representatives - and thus local accountability - because all school board representatives were at-large representatives. In 1981, as well as now, complaints of school board elitism were raised because all school board members came from just a few of the several neighborhood wards. Even Superintendent Calvin Cleveland saw the need for school board ward representatives, saying in the summer of 1981, “The present board is well aware of its skewed representation from the West End and the East Concord area.”

But school board members disagreed with the need for the council to be part of the district budget process, saying that the school board was already directly responsible to the voters. If you did not agree with a school board member you could vote that person off the board when they come up for reelection. Besides, as Concord school boards through the decades have pointed out, city councilors already have their hands full dealing with the city budget.

The school district autonomy issue was played out in public debates at the city council and on the school board. Ultimately, the city council and the school board put competing referendums on the November 1981 ballot. Voting Yes for Referendum #1 gave the city council final say over the school district’s budget. Voting Yes for Referendum #2 let the school board retain its authority over the school budget.

When the votes were counted, Concord residents approved both referendums, with many apparently confused voters marking “Yes” to both referendums, effectively countering their own vote. Such an outcome did not embolden the Legislature to change the school district’s charter. Final control over the school budget remained with the school board. Despite many people on and off the school board advocating for ward representation, the all at-large make-up of the school board also remained in effect.

With the city now facing a major budget shortfall, which will result in a combination of more taxes and less services, and the school district proposing an expensive plan to close four of Concord’s elementary schools and construct three large schools, it remains to be seen whether school board autonomy and ward representation will resurface as major issues in 2008.

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