With the budget season already ramping up, leadership of the Monadnock Regional School Board and the school district’s budget committee plan to meet with district administration to discuss the tense relationship among the groups.
Last school year, the board and budget committee clashed over the committee’s default budget, which district administrators said was not calculated correctly under state law and would have necessitated cuts. The budget committee ultimately voted to change the figure after the board threatened legal action.
The committee, which comprises elected representatives from the district’s six member towns, is responsible for setting the default budget number. Because voters approved the operating budget proposal at the polls in March, the default budget never went into effect.
Superintendent Lisa A. Witte, who joined the district in 2015, told the board in January that she no longer felt comfortable sending administrators to budget committee meetings because of what she described as “inappropriate conversation” about district personnel during open session.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting at the Gilsum STEAM Academy, Witte read a letter addressed to the board and budget committee, which she said she also sent to committee members that night. Witte said Wednesday that the letter was intended to clarify her concerns about interactions between the committee, the board and administration.
“The bottom line issue is that there is a clear pattern of disrespectful comments, inappropriate behavior, and personal attacks from several members of the Budget Committee (directed at the School Board, Administration, or both) that goes unchecked by the Budget Committee as a whole,” Witte wrote.
She also referred to comments made to The Sentinel in January by the committee’s chairman, Wayne Lechlider of Swanzey, that administrators did not attend budget committee meetings regularly enough — which she said were untrue — and his assertion that interactions with administration have been in the form of “constructive criticism.”
“Raising one’s voice from across the room, gesticulating and pointing and making statements akin to ‘you must have hired the wrong people’ or ‘clearly you don’t know what you are doing’ is not constructive criticism — it is inappropriate behavior bordering on bullying,” Witte wrote. “Saying that someone ‘needs to grow up and do their job’ cannot possibly be construed as constructive criticism — it is a personal attack and abusive.”
Witte said Wednesday that she wrote the letter because she’s heard feedback from those who’ve attended recent budget committee meetings that there doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of the administration’s concerns. She said in the letter that she hopes it is the first step toward working together with the committee “as partners in a professional, respectful manner.”
“Disagreements are expected and welcomed, for it is through thoughtful discussion of differing views that positive change occurs. Keeping that in mind, our asks are simple,” Witte wrote. “Professional, respectful interactions, with committee leadership that models appropriately and ensures other members of the committee interact professionally and respectfully.”
In August, the school board voted to pursue hiring a mediator to help repair relations with the budget committee. But Lechlider said Wednesday that the budget committee voted unanimously against doing so because members did not view it as necessary, and said they don’t “see what the administration sees.”
“The meetings aren’t as heated as they come across, because I’ve asked all the budget committee members, both in a formal setting and one on one, do you see this?” he said.
Lechlider said he took issue with some aspects of Witte’s letter, such as her claim that his comments about administrator attendance at budget committee meetings were defamatory.
One or more administrators attended eight of nine budget committee meetings during the 2017-18 school year, Witte said in January. Last school year, one or more administrators were present for part or all of all five budget committee meetings held between September and January, she said.
She said Wednesday that administrators plan to attend only the budget committee meetings that are “important to the budget development process” this year, but have been providing regular written reports to the committee and responding to requests for information.
“I think part of the conversation moving forward will be about, what does administration participation look like moving forward?” she said Wednesday.
According to Witte, a meeting is still being scheduled.
“I’m willing to put this behind us and just move on,” Lechlider said Wednesday, “because we’ve got the work of the budget to do.”