Newport Must Revote School Warrant
Newport — In a defeat for the School Board, Sullivan County Superior Court Judge Brian Tucker ordered the district to hold another vote on the entire March 12 ballot, not just on the two articles that contained incorrect figures.
Tucker, in a decision released late yesterday, sided with resident Bert Spaulding Sr., who filed an injunction against the Newport School District, alleging it violated state law by not making the amended school district warrant for the annual meeting available seven days before the March 12 vote.
“I agree with Mr. Spaulding that the district did not provide the notice of the final ballot questions as required by law,” Tucker wrote in his five-page ruling. “The statute in question mandates that the final ballot questions be in the annual report at least one week prior to the second session.”
Tucker rejected the school district’s argument that the sample ballot, which was printed more that seven days before the vote, met the requirement of the law, calling the reasoning “inapt.”
“Therefore, I find and rule that a new second session is required in order for the public to have sufficient advance notice of the issues to be decided,” the judge wrote.
Spaulding said last night that he was pleased with Tucker’s ruling.
“We won 110 percent and got everything,” he said. “I’m pleased. I think this is a win-win for everybody.”
Spaulding’s main complaint in his court filing was that the warrant, in which one article was amended at the February deliberative session, was not available to voters until about 1 p.m. on the day of the voting at the polling place.
In court testimony on Friday, Spaulding said he went to the SAU office March 5 and was directed to the annual report, which did not have the amended version, only the original one. On the day of the vote, Spaulding said he went to the polling place at 9 and again at noon and neither time was the new warrant there, only the annual report.
The school district, through its attorney Kathleen Peahl, sought approval to revote articles 7 and 8, which contained incorrect figures that did not reflect the amendment made at the deliberative session. Article 7 should have requested $1 for the transportation fund and article 8, $100,000 for unanticipated special education expenses. But on the ballot, the dollar figures were reversed.
Spaulding and his attorney, Michael Shklar, also argued that article 6 violated state law. As described in RSA 198:4-b II, it allows the school district to retain year-end unassigned general funds up to 2.5 percent of fiscal year’s net assessment for “emergencies and overexpenditures.”
But in the warrant, the school district left out the word overexpenditures and Spaulding argued they are different than emergencies.
Tucker said that the school district “took the position that the article applies to both emergencies and overexpenditures.”
“I disagree with both contentions,” Tucker wrote.
The judge saw Spaulding’s argument as valid with the respect to the words having different meanings.
“Therefore, as the terms are used in the statute, an ‘emergency’ is not the same as an ‘overexpenditure’ and properly read, Article 6 authorized the fund to be used for the former, but not the latter,” Tucker wrote.
But he also did not see any statutory “requirement that the fund be devoted to address overexpenditures.”
Tucker concluded that the article should reflect what was approved at the deliberative session, which did not have the word “overexpenditures.”
Finally, Tucker did not directly address Spaulding’s argument that articles 8 and 9 should not be called capital reserve funds for special education expenses and maintenance, which require voter approval to spend.
Spaulding said they were originally approved by voters as expendable trust funds, which can be spent by the School Board.
“My guess is when the warrant is revised, they will be described as expendable trust funds,” attorney Shklar said by phone last night.
The judge did not make a ruling on Spaulding’s request to have his attorney fees paid but instead said Spaulding could file a memorandum explaining whey he should be granted attorney’s fees and costs.
The warrant had 10 articles, including the $17.8 million budget, which passed. Elections will not be part of the second vote, which will be held May 14, the same day as the annual town meeting vote.
A message left for School Board Chairman Leo Paquin was not immediately returned.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.