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Newfound School Board’s Stance Feeds Residents’ Anger
By Thomas P. Caldwell
BRISTOL — Five weeks after Bristol resident Archie Auger questioned the legality of including capital improvement items in the school district’s default budget, the Newfound Area School Board is delaying discussion on the complaint, further alienating taxpayers who say they feel they can no longer trust the board.
Selectmen from several member towns, as well as residents of the district, attended that last two school board meetings in hopes of getting the board to admit it was wrong in its interpretation of what costs can legitimately be included in the default budget, but the matter was tabled on March 12 and not even included on the March 26 agenda.
School administrators say that Auger’s amendment to add $800,000 to last year’s operating budget to allow the district to replace the high school roof was not a one-time expenditure, which would prevent its placement in the default budget. Instead, they said the roof repair was part of an ongoing maintenance plan, so funding for other items in the capital improvement plan can be included in the default budget each year going forward.
Auger argued that, because the School Board had not formally adopted its capital improvement plan until after last year’s annual meeting, voters never had a chance to decide whether to approve it, a necessary step for an item to go into the default budget. A former long-time school district employee, Auger said a roof replacement cannot be considered an ongoing expense.
If the school board had addressed the issue right away, it could have determined whether his argument was valid and, if necessary, corrected the default budget before the annual School District Meeting. Instead, School Board Chair Jeff Levesque of Groton delayed discussion until March 12, a day before the ballot vote and a date Levesque already knew Auger would be out of town.
When residents showed up at the March 12 meeting demanding answers, Vincent Paul Migliore of Bridgewater tabled the question, saying he wanted to wait until Auger could be present to make his case. Because Auger planned to be out of town until the end of the month, the discussion was not placed on the March 26 agenda, legally preventing the board from taking any action.
Auger did come to the meeting, but he said he was not feeling well and agreed to wait until the board’s April 9 meeting for the discussion.
That did not sit well with those who had come for the second time, only to be told there would be no discussion.
New Hampton resident Dana Torsey said the board’s behavior was insulting, while Groton Selectman John Rescigno questioned the integrity of Superintendent Stacy Buckley, Business Manager Michael Limanni, and the entire school board for bypassing the voters on expenditures.
The administrators say the school district attorney had advised that they were correct in including $712,300 in new capital projects in the default budget because it was for continuing maintenance on school buildings.
Those who believe the administration was wrong said it undermined their faith in those in charge, and would end up hurting the students. Voters on March 13 affirmed that sentiment, defeating the proposed budget and leaving the district to operate on a smaller default budget.
Prior to its next meeting, the school board consulted with its attorney in a special meeting.
On the 26th, Rescigno argued against delaying the discussion, saying the board was already familiar with Auger’s arguments through emails with the administration. He said he would not be able to attend the April meeting, and others who were there also were being inconvenienced by another delay.
He also contended that it took more than two weeks for Buckley to respond to an email from him, and that Levesque had never responded.
Buckley sharply denied that claim, later prompting Rescigno to note that the board’s policy of listening and not responding during the public comment periods appeared to be a rule that was only sometimes followed.
Several residents have vowed to take the school board to court if they do not relent, believing that a recent decision on a similar matter in Hillsborough County Superior Court supports their contention that no spending can be included in a default budget that has not first been put through a public hearing and a vote of the legislative body.
Bristol resident Paul Simard told the board that, if their logic were allowed to stand, they could get a new, $30 million building simply by putting the project in the capital improvement plan.
Bristol Selectman Don Milbrand said he agreed with the board’s previous decision to table the question until Auger could be present, but he took exception to Migliore’s statement that people did not attend school board meetings unless there was a hot button issue.
He called that characterization “derogatory” and said, “We’re going to come when there’s something important on the agenda. You were elected to represent us. If nobody’s here, it means you are being trusted. … There is no trust right now. We’re going to have to sit here and micromanage things so you don’t do things behind our backs again.”
27 March 2018
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