A majority of Keene voters had a clear message Saturday for a small group that sought to slash the budget and reduce some of the school board’s powers:
No, thank you.
Most voters showed their disdain for the ideas, amending each of seven warrant articles and describing most of them as a waste of time or irresponsible. Those in support of the articles were frustrated, complaining that the amendments changed the purpose of the articles.
In all, the group amended the wording of eight out of 13 articles, and defeated four attempts to change the $63.3 proposed budget in a nearly six-hour meeting with 10 ballot votes. About 115 voters, just over half a percent of the city’s roughly 17,000 registered voters, attended Saturday’s deliberative session for the Keene School District at Keene High School.
Most of the meeting was devoted to debating four different budget articles on the warrant. One article is the operating budget proposed by the school district that voters always see on a warrant. The other three were submitted by petition in an attempt to cut spending.
Residents Darryl W. Perry and Conan Salada, who both identify with the Free Keene movement, questioned why the three petition articles — numbers 2, 3, and 4, on the warrant — were placed ahead of the district’s budget proposal, which is generally one of the first on the warrant.
The three petition articles suggested operating budgets that were $900,000, $1.5 million and $4 million less, respectively, than the budget proposed by the district.
Each article contains a sentence stating that, if approved, it would overrule any previous article relating to the budget. Salada, who submitted the articles, said previously it was his intention with that sentence to make it clear which budget voters supported and to avoid having more than one operating budget.
Board Vice Chairman Ann F. Szot said the board made the decision to place the articles at the beginning of the warrant at the advice of the Department of Revenue Administration and the district’s attorney.
“Because you want it to fail?” Salada asked.
“Exactly,” Szot replied.
Resident Theodore H. Parent motioned to amend each of the articles to make them advisory only. The way the articles were written, he said, could more than double the city’s property taxes, since multiple operating budgets could be approved.
“This is an absurd procedure and it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” he said.
Each of Parent’s amendments passed in voice votes.
School district attorney John Wrigley and Parent said these sort of attempts to reduce school spending should be made through article 5 — the district’s proposed operating budget.
Yet when Salada, Perry and Ian Freeman took a shot at changing article 5, they were defeated just as enthusiastically.
The district’s proposed budget is $63.255,581, up 1.4 percent, or $869,184, from the $62,386,397 operating budget voters approved last year. The default budget is $63,578,424.
Freeman tried to reduce the budget by $5 million, saying that rising taxes are driving people from Keene. His motion failed 75-15.
Perry tried to amend the wording of the article to make it advisory only but was overruled by moderator Joseph Hoppock, since the board is required by law to raise an operating budget.
And Salada tried to reduce the budget to $62,756,947, a $498,634 cut. His motion failed 74-14.
The budget includes reducing the number of tutors at the elementary school by 13, though the district-wide net reduction is only six because some tutors will be added at the high school.
Joanne Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher at Franklin School, made a motion to add $30,000, hoping that the board would use it to keep a tutor at the kindergarten level, and Jennifer Durling, a parent of three Symonds School students, made a motion to add $48,900 to reinstate three tutors that would be cut from Symonds.
About seven parents, teachers and guidance counselors spoke in favor of either Sullivan’s or Durling’s motions. They said today’s teachers manage classrooms with students who have far greater needs than ever before, including homelessness, emotional disabilities, learning disabilities or family struggles. Some said they understood and supported the district’s long-term vision, which includes re-thinking the way special education students are included in regular education classrooms. Yet they worried that the district was trying to make changes too quickly.
But both motions failed, the first in a 48-63 vote and the second in a 37-66 vote.
Tensions between those who associate with Free Keene, a pro-liberty and anti-government activist group, and the moderator and general crowd continued to grow as the meeting drew on.
Some wondered aloud why, if taxes in Keene are so high, they haven’t driven out Freeman or Perry. Others groaned at their proposals or laughed at some defeated amendments.
Voters amended each of the remaining four petition articles from Salada, which aimed to reduce board powers related to surplus money and appointments. The amendments replaced words such as “repeal” or “remove” in the articles with “ratify” to leave the powers in tact.
One article would have removed the authority of the board to appoint new members to fill vacant seats and another would have removed the board’s authority to recommend or not recommend articles on the warrant.
Those articles would have had no effect even if they weren’t amended, since the powers are granted by state statute, Wrigley said.
Salada’s other two articles related to the board’s ability to retain and use year-end surplus money. One would have rescinded a power voters gave to the board last year to keep some year-end surplus money for an emergency fund, and the other would have required the district to return all year-end surplus money to taxpayers as a deduction on their next property tax bill.
Parent introduced all of the amendments, which essentially make Salada’s petition articles moot, and each passed with more than 80 percent support. Salada, and those who backed his articles, complained more than once that the amendments changed the nature of the petition articles.
“Let the people decide (in March),” he said. “If it fails, it fails.”
Hoppock, the moderator, had ruled that the amendments were allowed because they didn’t change the subject matter of the articles.
Perry made at least three motions to overrule Hoppock’s decisions. Each failed in a voice vote.
Before diving into the budget and petition articles, district officials devoted about an hour to explaining Article One, which asks voters to approve a $12.85 million bond to carry out the district’s long-planned elementary school restructuring project.
In a 90-24 vote, voters passed an amendment proposed by resident Jean Dobson to change the first article to include the plan to repurpose Jonathan Daniels School.
Dobson said she thought the article was ambiguous as originally written. It stated the money would pay for renovations and alterations at the elementary schools, but didn’t say that Jonathan Daniels would no longer be a neighborhood elementary school if the bond passes.
The elementary school project is supposed to save the district money in the long term by consolidating students from five elementary schools into four schools, thereby reducing staff and overhead costs. The net savings over a 10-year period would be about $5 million, according to information project architects revealed last fall.
Other articles voters will see on the ballot in March include a four-year teachers contract that would cost $530,470 next year and putting $100,000 of end-of-the-year surplus money into a capital reserve fund for building maintenance.
Total proposed spending for next year, which includes the budget, bond, teachers contract and deposit into the capital reserve fund is $64,218,545, compared with $62,756,947 for the current year.
If the budget, bond, and teachers contract all pass, that will require more than a 6 percent increase in local property taxes, or a $207 increase for a house assessed at $200,000.
Voters head to the polls for second session on March 11.