Monday, December 28, 2009

Concord residents should be able to control the school district charter

Guest perspective by State Rep. Rick Watrous

The Concord School District – the only autonomous district in the state – has managed to delay any legislative attempt to allow voters to have more influence over their school system.

A year ago, six Concord state representatives – at the request of their constituents – sponsored bills to give voters better representation and more say over the school district. District officials and past and present board members testified against the bills.

House Bill 33, sponsored by Rep. Steve Shurtleff, would have replaced the current at-large school board with district representation. It is expensive to run a citywide race, and, historically, Concord’s wealthier wards have been over-represented on the school board. This bill would have resulted in more representative school boards.

House Bill 319, sponsored by Rep. Jessie Osborne, Mary Stuart Giles, Bill Stetson, Candice Bouchard and myself, would have allowed school district voters to vote on the authorization of the school district borrowing money in excess of $5 million.

Both bills would have required voter approval at a city election. Along with many others, I testified in favor of both bills. The school district lobbied hard against both bills, not wanting to give Concord citizens the opportunity to vote on these issues.

Members of the House Municipal and County Government Committee, responsible for holding hearings on the bills, were initially confused by them, wondering why they had to deal with affairs specific to Concord.

The answer goes back to 1961. Up until that year, the Concord School District held an annual meeting at which residents voted on the school budget. According to the 1961 annual report, 1,130 residents appeared at the annual meeting and approved that year’s $2 million budget. After that meeting, school board members convinced Concord’s state representatives to remove the power of citizens to vote on the budget or to amend the district charter.

Since then, the charter has been under the control of the Legislature and the school board has had total control of the budget. Concord residents have the dubious distinction of being the only citizens who have their school charter effectively locked away in the State House.
Once the House committee realized this bizarre situation, HB 319 was amended to return the school charter to the citizens of Concord in 2009. Citizens would have the right to revise or amend their own charter without prior legislative approval.

The amended bill unanimously passed the House, but then something odd happened.

When the bill reached the Senate, five senators – none from Concord – rewrote the bill at the behest of the counsel for the school district. Attorney John Teague urged the Senate committee to not return the charter but to instead create a commission to study the charter. The Senate amended the bill according to Teague’s recommendations and the Commission to Study the Concord School District Charter was created.

The commission, of which I was a member, spent months studying the issue. Teague testified numerous times and presented another proposal: the creation of an election charter commission. Essentially, he was now testifying that his previous recommendation was not representative enough! By a slim margin, the commission recommended the creation of an elected charter commission. The school district’s attorney had moved the goalposts yet again.

Whatever this elected charter commission eventually recommends in 2011 or beyond must be approved by the voters in another election and then passed by the Legislature. Concord residents could go through this multi-year process only to have the recommendations disapproved and our charter still under control of the Legislature.

It has become apparent by their actions that the school administration and board are afraid of ceding any power to the public they are supposed to serve. I now realize why many people consider them out of touch. The school board’s pet reply to people who don’t agree with their governance is that we can always vote them out of office. But board members make decisions that impact our city and children for generations.

Right now the nine-member board is moving to end Concord’s system of neighborhood schools and saddle the community with over $100 million in debt. It’s small consolation to vote someone out of office after historic buildings have been torn down, massive debt incurred and our school system changed forever.

Voters need more say over what occurs in their school district. The Legislature should restore basic constitutional rights to the Concord school district voter – the right to petition, amend and revise our own school charter.

I have submitted legislation to return the charter and these rights to district voters in 2010. I urge citizens to speak up. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is about controlling our own school district charter to attain greater input in district governance. After 48 years, it's long overdue.


Anonymous said...

How do you account for the last election for the Concord School Board? The issues of new construction and Bonding was discussed by everyone that ran for election. Wouldn't it be fair to say that the Concord Voters agreed with the projects by the outcome of the election?
Mark Coen

Tony said...

I don't know Mark. I seriously doubt that. I think that people just felt it was a done deal and there was nothing they could do about it so they didn't get involved. Three strong candidates needed to challenge the incumbents and win, by some miracle, in order to stave off this monstrosity. There was just no way that was going to happen.

I do truly wish you the best of luck. The council is going to bear the brunt of voter anger - and cost controls - based on this mess by the school board.

Anonymous said...

There is no mess by the school board.

Instead of the CTA running around, how about writing letters to the school board, oh is that too hard?
Rep Waltrus should be trying to get the money for Concord for all of the unfunded mandates, that Concord is REQUIRED to spend. How much would that reduce the taxes. Oh is that too hard too? Seems to me that the people who oppose the school board are basically choosing an easy fight.

Tony said...

The school district and boards have created a very large mess ... a disaster of sorts. If you're too blind to see that, well, whatever.

The CTA is an educational org. We aren't a political action committee. We can't advocate for people to do anything. We can educate and inform and that is what we have done.

The state already pumps a pretty good chunk of change into the school district now. And, as you know, the state is broke. So, there isn't going to be any more state money.

Anonymous said...

As far as the last election, there was no alternative candidates to the 3 incumbants, so there was no choice at all to vote for.

The school board has had total power for so many decades, people have given up. Too much power is a bad thing.

Ben Venator said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but having to be wealthy, retired, or able to survive on the sole income of a spouse makes it difficult to be able to afford to serve in public office in NH, especially in time intensive positions like the school board. The answer is not to pay elected officials enough to live on, since that has not proven to be the answer to quality candidates, but at some point we need to figure out a better option. Otherwise the rational thing to do is be vocal like Tony and be ready to encourage those who feel they can afford to run.

Anonymous said...

Rick and Tony,

I think I understand the process that the Appointed Commission would like to take.
1. Have the Concord Voters elect a "Charter Commission". This could be anyone that decided to run.
2. Whatever the Charter Commission recommends MUST be approved by the Concord Voters. (so far 2 Citywide Elections.)
The Election results would be sent to the State Legislature for adoption.
The State could disaprove the Concord Vote and keep it as is.

What if the Concord Voters decide to keep the School Charter the same?

Would you submit legislation to reverse the Vote?

I guess the question that you bring up is do we want a REPRESENTATIVE type of government or more like a Town Hall. This should apply to not only the School Board but the City Council also.
Mark Coen

Anonymous said...

In response to Councilor Coen’s questions...

At this point, the charter ball is back in the Legislature. It seems that both the House and the Senate will have bills to create an elected charter commission. However, according to the current wording of these bills, if Concord voters—for whatever reason—rejected the charter changes eventually proposed by this elected charter commission, the charter would remain under the control of the legislature.

I believe it’s a disservice to Concord citizens to have the charter locked away in the state house, and the sooner the charter is returned to the voters the better. I am submitting an amendment that would return the charter to our district in 2010 so our citizens would once again have the rights that our constitution guarantees them. An elected charter commission could still recommend changes to our charter, but the charter would already be home in Concord, so citizens would not have to accept whatever the commission proposes simply to have our charter—and their constitutional rights—back.

As far as representative local government, I believe the City Council with its mix of ward and at-large candidates is a good model. I think Concord voters should have the opportunity to choose this model for their school board, but the choice would ultimately be up to them.

Rep. Rick Watrous

Tony said...

Thanks Rick for responding.

Mark, you raise some relevant points and that is why I, for one, am glad that Rep. Watrous is offering a separate bill.

The charter commission made the wrong decision. And its decision basically holds off reform for at least three years ... or maybe even never! That's just not good enough. It's also not good enough when every other community in the state is able to have better control over school expenses, an up or down vote on major projects, and the ability to amend the charter via initiative petition. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't have the same rights as everyone else.

As you know, I have submitted a small charter change proposal to the city council charter about changing what happens when an at-large city council seat is vacated. When and if I get the chance to testify about this, I will be noting how easy it is to offer reform to the council charter - compared to the school board charter. It will, hopefully, be a pertinent and important lesson for people, so they can understand why this reform is so important ... and how the charter commission, school board, school administrators, and their legal counsel, hijacked it.