At first glance, it’s déjà vu all over again. On Sunday, two residents held an informational session to describe sharp cuts they’re proposing in the Marlow School District’s budget for the 2020-21 school year.
If adopted by voters and implemented by the school board, the result could mean eliminating Marlow’s pre-kindergarten program, combining three grades at Perkins Academy elementary school into one classroom, halving art, music and physical education programs, other staffing reductions and eliminating a reserve fund. In all, the cuts would reduce the school board’s $2,362,000 budget proposal by about $200,000, or almost 8.5 percent.
The situation seems nearly identical to the one playing out in the Winchester School District. There, cuts of 12.5 percent from the school board’s proposal are before the voters. In response, the school board has outlined steps it will have to take to implement them, including reducing kindergarten from full- to half-day, ending busing of Winchester’s students to Keene High School and axing athletic programs and field trips.
There is, however, a significant difference between the two. Winchester is an SB 2 district, meaning voters will decide by a so-called official ballot at the polls whether to adopt the budget as amended at the district’s February deliberative session to include the severe cuts. If they don’t, a default budget will be enacted that essentially restores spending to the school board’s original proposal. In describing that all-or-nothing choice in this space a couple of weeks ago, we lamented that New Hampshire did not provide a way for the Winchester voters to find a middle ground between the two extremes when they cast ballots on March 10.
Marlow voters, however, have the opportunity to seek a path between the school board’s proposal and the cuts advocated by residents Barry Corriveau and Richard Lammers. The Marlow School District has not adopted the SB 2 official ballot procedure and instead conducts its business at a traditional school district meeting. As a result, voters attending this year’s meeting on March 12 will consider the board’s proposal that is on the warrant and, no doubt, the Corriveau/Lammers amendment to reduce it. But they can also choose at the meeting to adopt a different budget figure, and that’s the virtue the official-ballot process approach lacks.
At the meeting, Marlow’s voters certainly can weigh arguments for and against the proposed $200,000 reductions. The school board, though, will have to defend its budget proposal to voters as well. In particular, voters should expect to learn from the board why it is advocating a 13.5 percent increase for the upcoming school year from the budget approved by the voters for the current 2019-20 school year, which itself is 30 percent higher than the approved budget for the preceding year. There may be very good reasons for those increases, having to do the uncertainties of funding special education costs and tuition increases for sending students to Keene’s middle and high schools, and the traditional meeting format will enable voters to insist on hearing them.
There may be certain advantages to the official ballot approach. In particular, it makes greater voter participation at least possible by enabling voters to cast ballots more conveniently. The system needs fixing, however, if school voters in Winchester are ever to have the flexibility their Marlow counterparts have.