SAU 36: Special Meeting To Decide On Nearly $550,000 In Extra State Aid

The White Mountains Regional School Board on Aug. 18 stood by its approval of the school strict re-opening plan. (File photo by Paul Hayes)

WHITEFIELD — The White Mountains Regional School District will receive an extra half-million dollars in state aid.

Now they need to decide what to do with it.

Voters will be presented with two options at a special meeting this fall: Allocate the funds to the capital reserve fund, or use them for tax relief.

There will be a public hearing prior to the school board meeting on Thursday, Oct. 14, and the special meeting will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 10.

Why the extra money? Finance Director Kris Franklin explained the situation to the School Board on Thursday.

When the school district prepared the 2021-2022 budget, it used “fuzzy” state funding projections. Those figures were unclear due to COVID-19, which disrupted the student counts used to calculate state aid.

Months later, final numbers were approved, and the White Mountains Regional School District was awarded $547,191 more than anticipated.

That amount includes corrections to the Relief Aid grant, which is tied to free and reduced eligible students (+$247,502) and Adequacy Aid, which is based on average daily membership (+$299,688).

If voters approve giving the money to the school district, for use during the current fiscal year, it would increase taxes by 27 cents per $1,000 in Carroll, 21 cents in Dalton, 17 cents in Jefferson, and would reduce the tax rate by 43 cents per $1,000 in Lancaster and 5 cents in Whitefield.

If voters return all the funds to the taxpayers, for use as tax relief, it would decrease property tax bills by $1.14 per $1,000 in Lancaster, 62 cents in Whitefield, 49 cents in Dalton, and 34 cents in Jefferson. The tax rate in Carroll, which does not receive state adequacy aid, would remain unchanged.

The third choice would be to split the difference, dividing the extra money between the school district and the taxpayers.

Voters must decide on the matter before the Department of Revenue Administration sets tax rates later this fall.

SURVEY RESPONSE

Jefferson resident James Akerman on Thursday called on the School Board to fire an unknown faculty member.

Akerman, whose children attend SAU 36 schools, pointed to a staff survey answer in the school district’s 2021-2022 COVID-19 re-opening plan published last month.

Addressing mask use, the anonymous staff member wrote, “I think farming the decision out to the public is not the best choice for the health of our school and our community. With so much mis- and disinformation being spread publicly in a community with a low education rate, we can’t trust the popular opinion to be informed.”

Perturbed, Akerman said, said he — and others in his community including nurses, doctors, and lawyers — were taken aback by the comment.

“I kind of take offense to that, because I’m well educated,” said Akerman, a retired paramedic. “I know a lot of people that are listening [the meeting virtually], wherever they are listening, probably take offense to being called uneducated.”

Akerman submitted a 91-A public information request in order to identify the staff member responsible for the offending comment, but was told that survey responses were anonymous and that no email address or other personal information was recorded.

He also asked school board members for their opinion of the survey response.

“Do you agree with that statement that we’re all kind of dumb and uneducated? Am I dumb?” asked Akerman.

Board members responded that survey participants were entitled to their opinions.

“We may not agree with what they said, but they have a right to say it,” said School Board member Bob Loiacono of Whitefield. “There’s a lot of things I don’t agree with what you say Mr. Akerman.”

PUBLIC COMMENT

During policy review, the School Board revisited its meeting rules.

Part of that was the public comment period.

They were offered a choice: Limit public comment to agenda items only, or continue to allow public comment on any matter of public concern directly related to the school district’s policies, programs and operations, whether its on the agenda or not.

They unanimously supported the second option, saying public input should not be restricted.

“I say let them talk,” said School Board member Tara Giles of Whitefield. “I feel like it would be frustrating if I was a member of the public and I wanted to come and talk, and I couldn’t.”

Kristen Van Bergen-Buteau agreed. She said under the restricted format, members of the public could schedule topics under new business, but they would have to do so 14 days in advance — and the school board meets roughly every 14 days.

“It just feels like [the restricted format] does not provide adequate access for constituents to provide public input,” she said.

In the interest of time, Van Bergen-Buteau suggested that public comment guidelines be included as part of future School Board agendas, print and online, so that people understood the ground rules for public comment, such as keeping comments under 5 minutes.

“When they’re planning to come speak to the board, folks don’t necessarily go out and find this policy and read it before they come, because they’re focused on what they want to bring to our attention,” she said. “So I just think it’s helpful to know the rules of the road before you walk in the room.”

COVID

The White Mountains Regional School District had more than 41 COVID cases across five communities as of Friday (23 in Lancaster, 12 in Whitefield, 6 in Jefferson, and under 5 in Carroll and Dalton).

Those case numbers reflect a high transmission rate across the district.

SAU 36 has reported 25 positive cases during the current school year, with 18 active (13 Lancaster Elementary, 2 Whitefield Elementary, and 3 White Mountains Regional). A community cluster outside of school is partly to blame for Lancaster’s high COVID numbers.

“We are seeing much more COVID-19 in our schools compared to the 2020-2021 school year and it’s mostly attributed to the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant,” said the district’s COVID coordinator, Lisa Miller.

COVID levels have strained staffing across all three schools. However, in-school testing of symptomatic students and staff has “helped to keep teachers working and students learning” and has also led to the quicker identification and isolation of positive cases, Miller said.

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