SWANZEY CENTER — The Monadnock Regional School Board’s June 15 vote to spend roughly $450,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds on staff stipends should have happened in a public meeting, the board chairman said Tuesday.
The board took that vote in a non-public session, a move that has drawn criticism from several residents of the district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy. At Tuesday night’s board meeting, Chairman Scott Peters of Troy took responsibility for what he characterized as an unintentional “misstep.”
“The mistake we made was in not exiting non-public and taking the vote for the use of the grant funding in a public setting,” Peters said during the meeting, which was held in the library of Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center and also broadcast via Zoom. “So, I accept responsibility for that. I’m sorry.”
Peters said the board entered that June 15 non-public session for an appropriate reason, but when the conversation shifted, the group should have moved back to a public session to vote on the $450,024 in stipends for 334 employees, representing 2.5 percent of staff members’ annual compensation.
The board went into that closed-door session for the purpose of discussing “the compensation of any public employee,” according to the minutes. That’s one of about a dozen reasons New Hampshire state law allows public bodies like school boards to go into non-public meetings.
The June 15 conversation, Peters said, was a continuation of one that began two weeks earlier in another non-public session, when the board began discussing the possibility of providing stipends for a few staff members based on their performance during the 2020-21 school year.
“What happened in that moment, however, is we were immediately presented with the opportunity to use CARES funds to support the take-home stipends,” Peters said Tuesday, referencing the federal coronavirus relief package. “And we did not continue the conversation about individual performance because we learned there was sufficient funding to support stipends for all.”
Adam Hopkins of Troy, who initially raised concerns about the transparency of the board’s non-public vote on the stipends, said previously that the board used an overly broad interpretation of the exemption in state law that allows non-public discussions on individual compensation. That provision covers conversations about payment of a single employee, not entire groups of school staff, said Hopkins, who also chairs Monadnock’s budget committee.
Peters said previously that the board received guidance from the district’s attorneys that the decision on the stipends should be made in a non-public session. But on Tuesday, Peters said he agrees with Hopkins’ assessment, and said he should have moved the board back into a public discussion when the conversation turned to a district-wide staff stipend.
“It was at that moment that we should have exited non-public to continue the conversation,” Peters, who has been on the board since 2015, said. “And this is not [the] administration’s fault. This is specifically my fault. I should have recognized that moment, when we were in it, and I should have stopped the conversation to get us out of non-public.”
Board members Elizabeth Tatro of Swanzey and Lisa Steadman of Troy, the board’s vice chairwoman, told Peters he did not need to take full responsibility for the error. But, Peters said, it’s the job of the board chair and vice chair “to make sure that we’re operating according to our mandate.” (Steadman, who previously served as board chairwoman, was not present for the June 15 non-public session).
Hopkins, the lone member of the public to attend Tuesday’s meeting in person, thanked Peters and the board for providing follow-up information on the non-public stipend vote.
The Monadnock district has been allocated a total of $6,466,526 in federal COVID-19 relief money over four rounds of grant funding, according to the district. The district is currently seeking public input on how to prioritize spending $3,961,969 Monadnock has been allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Joe Biden signed in March. These funds are eligible to be spent through September 2023 for purposes ranging from educational programs to help students recover from the effects of the pandemic to facility upgrades like ventilation systems, according to federal guidelines.
As of Tuesday, Monadnock Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Rathbun said the district had received 28 responses to its request for input, all from staff members.
“And the vast majority of that input had to do with ventilation and climate control, about schools being too hot, too cold and wanting more ventilation,” Rathbun said. “So the vast majority of that feedback really revolved around air quality.”
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent Lisa Witte updated board members on current staff vacancies. At the board’s Aug. 17 meeting, the district had 14.5 open positions, according to the minutes of that meeting. That figure has dropped to seven as of Tuesday, Witte said, with paraprofessionals remaining the biggest need.
“From what I know of what’s happening in other districts in our region, that’s similar,” Witte said after the meeting. “And that’s a longstanding difficulty. I think it’s been more difficult with COVID, but it’s not new, unfortunately. Those are hard roles to fill. They’re great roles, they’re great jobs, but they can be difficult. And so it takes a special person to be a paraprofessional.”
Witte told the board she remains hopeful the district will be able to fill all open positions soon, though she did not provide a specific timeline.