For a close-to-home illustration of why school boards across this country are facing revolts by upset parents, look no further than Marlborough, where, despite voters appropriating funds to pay specifically for full-time Spanish and art teachers, the school board — on the recommendation of the administration — has opted against spending the money for its intended purpose.
While parents nationwide are angry with public schools for various reasons — many of them ginned up, from masking to curriculum choices, by partisan ideologues — their general disenchantment often boils down to not being heard when it comes to the education of their children. In fact, parents rather resent being told that the school system knows better than they do what is best for their kids.
Marlborough residents attending the annual school district meeting March 1 voted 21-16 to increase the Marlborough School budget by $115,000 to make full time the positions of Spanish teacher and art teacher, which are now part time. As The Sentinel’s Hunter Oberst reported Saturday, the school board has decided against spending the money to increase those positions because administrators from Marlborough School and SAU 29 concluded that making them full time “didn’t make sense,” in the words of School Board Chair Jeffrey Miller, when the school has other priorities, namely improving student performance in reading and math.
Test scores from 2018-19 on file with the N.H. Department of Education show that only 35 percent of Marlborough students were proficient in English language arts and 33 percent were proficient in math, so this focus is understandable. Miller said making art and Spanish full time would cut into core programs like these.
And state law says that, although voters can voice how they’d like taxpayer money to be spent, the final decision rests with the governing body — in this case, the school board.
Indeed the administrators are paid for their expertise on such matters, and chosen by the school board members the district’s voters empowered to make those decisions.
However, to ignore specific instructions from voters is to tread on dangerous ground.
Miller pointed out that only about 3 percent of registered Marlborough voters attended the school district meeting, implying that the mandate can be dismissed. “When 97 percent of voters stay home,” Miller said, “it makes it difficult to assess the town’s stance.”
True, but that’s not how democracy works. All voters are invited to participate in the process. Opting not to participate is their right, but this choice comes at the cost of forfeiting a voice in the process. Those who did bother to attend the March 1 meeting duly voted to increase the school budget by a certain amount for a specific purpose.
“Voters asked for what we believe is the best for children,” said Christine Callahan, a parent who proposed the budget amendment. “And to hear the principal and superintendent and assistant superintendent recommend to the board not to do that is disheartening.”
Indeed. Why participate in government at all if votes are to be ignored?
Now the $115,000 question is, what happens to the money? The extra funds will be incorporated into the budget, according to Miller, and if they aren’t spent, the money will be returned to the taxpayer — exactly what should happen in this case. The school board should not spend a penny of that money on anything but the purpose for which voters appropriated it.
Miller argued that the school board could decide to allocate the money to other areas of need, citing an obligation “to the best interest of the school while maintaining the support of the voters. The first priority is always the students.”
It’s worth noting, however, that “returning to the taxpayer” is not generally what one might think it is. In the case of annual budgets, it typically means the money will be designated as surplus and forwarded to the next year’s budget, which in theory, would then need that much less in new tax revenue — assuming the budget-makers don’t find $115,000 more in spending to include. So, no taxpayers are getting checks in the mail returning their share.
If school board members and administrators truly believe that hiring full-time Spanish and art teachers is not in the best interests of the students at Marlborough School, they should have explained that at the meeting and said they wouldn’t be spending the money, before voters approved it in good faith. Even so, however, they should be prepared to suffer the consequences of ignoring those voters’ will.