The pace of major news developments in the state and the region over the past couple of months has been breathtaking, with the intense focus first on the presidential primary (remember that?) followed by town and school meeting season and then completely overtaken by the coronavirus spread and the efforts to contain it. As necessary as that attention has been — most especially on the very serious public health and economic challenges — other noteworthy developments in the region have continued and give the opportunity to close the circle on two recent public school-related issues.
First is the news that the Keene and Monadnock school districts have settled the lawsuit filed by Monadnock over how Keene’s plan to push back start times at the middle and high schools would impact Monadnock students attending the Cheshire Career Center. The resolution of the Keene-Monadnock settlement, which will result in scheduling certain career center classes to accommodate the different start-time schedules of the Monadnock students, seems sensible and rather a no-brainer. So much so that the biggest question about the settlement is why it required a lawsuit and legal expense before being reached.
The regional agreement between Keene and Monadnock (and also the Fall Mountain school district, which has reached a similar resolution with Keene regarding their career center students) that governs the career center arrangements obligates the parties to develop “mutually acceptable school calendars” and to submit their disputes to arbitration. Instead, the lawsuit resulted. For Monadnock students who will be attending the career center, the settlement is good news. For all, the equally good news is that Keene and Monadnock agreed in the settlement that, before initiating any arbitration or litigation, they will first “attempt to reach resolution through good-faith direct discussions” and then through mediation. Too bad that didn’t happen before.
The second development, and one likely to have the greater long-term impact, is the budget cuts implemented by the Winchester School Board at its meeting on March 19. The board had proposed a $12.8 million budget for the upcoming 2020-21 school year, but voters at the school deliberative session on Feb. 6 reduced the figure to go on the school warrant by 12.5 percent. In response, the board warned that draconian cuts would be necessary and detailed the steps it said it would be forced to take if the amended budget passed. This did not deter district voters, and at the polls on March 10 they approved the reduced $11.3 million budget.
Some advocating for the reduced budget accused the school board of scare tactics in outlining before the district vote what the cuts would be. But last week it made good on its word and approved almost the same cuts it had previously projected. Facing mounting tuition costs for students attending Keene High School and other already locked-in increases beyond its control, the board was left with limited discretionary spending options to cut. The resulting steps: reducing kindergarten to half-day, eliminating transportation for high school students to Keene as well as for kids living within 2 miles of Winchester School, axing funding for athletic programs and field trips, and eliminating nearly a quarter of the workforce.
Extreme measures, indeed. Advocates for the budget reduction justified it as a return to the spending level approved in 2017 because the district’s test scores hadn’t improved in the three years since — and because taxpayers were tapped out and couldn’t afford the proposed budget. Time will tell whether the cuts in early education and other support will limit the district’s ability to increase test scores or, worse, serve to disadvantage Winchester’s schoolkids. As for the latter justification, board Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard summed it up when she blamed the New Hampshire public school-funding system for pitting taxpayers strapped by an unfair property tax burden against the needs of students. “Until New Hampshire figures this out,” she said, “this divide will continue.”