LANGDON — Should they stay or should they go?
The question over Charlestown’s future within the Fall Mountain Regional School District loomed over the sloped high school auditorium at Wednesday’s district deliberative session, with the town’s potential withdrawal consuming much of the discussion.
Voters amended a petition article submitted by Charlestown Selectman Albert St. Pierre, significantly increasing the amount of money that would accompany a proposed third-party study of the feasibility of one or more towns exiting the district.
There is also a separate article on Charlestown’s ballot this year directing the district to form a study committee and report its findings to the State Board of Education. If the state board approves a withdrawal plan, it would have to come before the school district’s voters for approval.
Charlestown residents pay a higher school tax rate than the four other towns in the district, which has led to frustration dating back decades.
All of the other articles on this year’s school-district warrant, including the budget proposal, were passed onto the ballot unchanged Wednesday night. But the meeting still lasted nearly four hours, with heated discussion over whether Charlestown is unfairly burdened in funding the district, which also includes Acworth, Alstead, Langdon and Walpole.
The apportionment formula is based largely on the average property value of homes in each town relative to the average number of students from each town the year before.
Much of the debate Wednesday evening — which, despite the difference in setting and accents, resembled the United Kingdom’s push to exit the European Union — was pushed by St. Pierre and fellow Charlestown resident Anthony Giordano.
Giordano took to the microphone early on to argue that Charlestown pays more than it should for the number of students it has in the high school.
Frustration grew as Charlestown residents asked plain and direct questions, and district officials took their time delving into the conceptual framework and nuances of the budget.
St. Pierre asked where Charlestown taxes were going in the budget proposal, and while the school board prepared a response, his question was met with applause from much of the audience.
Giordano then proposed an amendment to reduce the proposed operating budget to equal the default budget, but was told by moderator Leroy Watson that the amendment had to be put in writing.
The default budget, which is set at $31,048,858, goes into effect if voters strike down the budget proposal at the polls. This year’s proposed operating budget is $31,224,800, up $932,387, or 3.1 percent, from the budget voters approved last year.
Pacing up and down the aisle as officials explained the budget formula, Giordano grew frustrated as administrators were unable to give him a specific answer as to whether sports or other extracurricular activities would be cut under the default budget.
“Can any of you give me some kind of guarantee that if we went to the default budget, that you’re gonna leave the kids’ after-school activities and sports alone?” Giordano said.
“We cannot make any guarantees,” Superintendent Lori Landry replied.
St. Pierre and Giordano subsequently huddled in the hallway to put the amendment into writing as debate continued.
Residents from Charlestown and other member towns also raised concerns about the school district potentially wasting money or poorly serving its students, from flat-screen TVs being purchased for classrooms to teachers being paid too much.
But Walpole resident Jacob Flynn, a senior at Fall Mountain Regional High School, changed the dynamic in the auditorium in an impassioned speech defending the district’s teachers and administrators.
Flynn turned his shoulders slightly away from the microphone to address the crowd.
“So I was just, you know, sitting in the back, kind of listening the whole time, and I’ve noticed a lot of people coming down, talking about all the things wrong: ‘It’s irresponsible, the school is blowing our money on everything!’” Flynn said. “... But I just want everyone to keep in mind that this is a school. They’ve produced kids; they do know how to do it. Like there is some dissatisfaction, I’m definitely getting that, but I guess just keep in the back of your mind that it’s still standing, it’s still successful, it’s not one gigantic trash heap of burning piles of bricks.”
Flynn’s words were met with applause. After he spoke, more people, including Charlestown residents, came up to the microphone to speak in favor of the school district’s work and ask fellow voters to support the budget.
“Yes, I understand that we want to watch the budget,” Claudia Fappiano, a consumer science teacher at Fall Mountain high school, said. “I live in Charlestown. My taxes are as high as yours are. I essentially am paying part of my own salary. I understand the pain that we’re all feeling, because I know what my taxes are going to do next year. I know they’re going to go up.”
Someone in the audience called out to the moderator to indicate Fappiano was potentially out of order in addressing other members of the audience, but she was allowed to continue. Fappiano adjusted her vermilion scarf, insisting she had borne no ill will toward anyone in her remarks.
“But I do know that, when and if the budget is cut (to the default budget), ... the question was asked, are there going to be cuts to what our students are going to be offered? The answer is yes.”
Treasurer Michael Herrington departed from the carefully worded responses of his colleagues and, unprompted, took to the microphone on stage to address the common themes of Charlestown being mistreated and the school district asking for too much money.
“There’s really two ways that I’ve come to think (of the budget): A. This is probably the most complicated thing on the face of the planet, and we really need to look at clarifying that so we can have an intelligent conversation and be on the same page,” Herrington said. “Or, on the other side of that spectrum, is that Fall Mountain is willfully defrauding towns, and I guarantee you that is not the case. I guarantee it.”
After more than two hours of debate, Giordano’s motion to reduce the budget proposal to the default figure failed, and all but one of the remaining articles passed to the ballot without much fanfare.
To close out the night, voters amended St. Pierre’s petition article that asks to fund a study examining the feasibility of one or more towns leaving the district by increasing the dollar figure attached to the effort from $30,000 to $150,000. The amendment was introduced by Langdon selectman Lou Beam.
“I’ve always said, if you’re gonna start something, you better do it right,” said Beam, who argued that the higher fee would better compensate lawyers.
Voters will have their final say on the proposed study, budget and the rest of the warrant at the ballot box on March 12.