Almost two months ago, the Monadnock Regional School District’s school board voted to spend a relatively meager $2,500 to pay for a professional mediator to help the board and members of the district’s budget committee get along better.
Yes, it had come to that. Things had gotten so bad that the school board — fairly overwhelmingly — voted to approve calling in professional help just to talk with its counterparts.
That might seem a sad commentary on the individuals involved in running the district’s school system, but at the time we saw it as a promising development. After all, the district, which has suffered from dysfunctional infighting among officials for decades, could only benefit from a fresh approach — one aimed at improving communication.
The district is, in many ways, emblematic of issues, financial and otherwise, that occur all over the Granite State. Cobbled together decades ago, it includes communities of varying sizes and economic means. At times, some member towns have become so frustrated they’ve left the district. Others have threatened the same.
Similar dynamics have been seen in the Jaffrey-Rindge, ConVal and Fall Mountain districts through the years, and in many more throughout the state. They are exacerbated by the state’s education funding mechanisms, which have never paid for adequately educating the state’s children, but rather, have left that to local taxpayers.
In the Monadnock district, the issue has long festered, occasionally erupting into full-blown battle, especially when the time comes to set the annual budget and default budget. For Monadnock, as with some other districts, the budget committee is responsible for setting the annual budget for the district warrant, but the school board can also recommend higher spending. School board members are often advocates for improving education, a position that can lead them to be seen as promoting spending. Those inclined to run for the budget panel might reasonably be inclined to keep taxes down by opposing spending. These are generalizations and don’t apply to everyone, of course. The takeaway is this: The two bodies have an innate tension, almost by design. Just last year, Monadnock’s school board threatened to sue the budget committee over how it determined the default budget.
Thus, again, while it was a sorry situation to find the members of the two panels at such odds that the school board felt the need to seek professional assistance, it was at least promising that the school board wanted to improve relations.
However, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and the budget committee summarily rejected the offer with a curt: We’re fine. Chairman Wayne Lechlider said mediation isn’t necessary because he’s asked his members and they don’t see the problem.
Sadly, the situation involves more than just the members of the two boards. District administrators must regularly appear before both to justify budgetary requests, and part of the decision to seek mediation came from the abuse administrators feel they’ve endured from the budget panel members.
Superintendent Lisa Witte told the school board last year she no longer felt comfortable sending administrators to budget committee meetings. Last week, she told the school board and budget committee members, in a letter, that “… there is a clear pattern of disrespectful comments, inappropriate behavior, and personal attacks from several members of the Budget Committee …” She called the members’ “inappropriate,” “abusive” and “bordering on bullying” and called for more professional decorum, even when disagreements occur.
Lechlider said he and his members simply don’t “see what the administration sees.” He dismissed Witte’s examples as just constructive criticism.
“I’m willing to put this behind us and just move on,” Lechlider said last week, “because we’ve got the work of the budget to do.”
That’s big of him, but ignoring a clear problem isn’t going to resolve it. In communities all over the state, officials have long fought over budgets and more without resorting to insults and badgering. Even in a district known for infighting and turmoil, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.
And voters ought to be paying attention to whether their representatives are treating others professionally or with disdain.