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Race for Lebanon School Board Seats Will Be Musical Chairs

Ballot voting will take place at Lebanon’s three polling locations on Tuesday, March 12, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Lebanon — This year’s March ballot will feature a four-way race for three School Board seats with a field of two incumbents and two fresh faces — Lebanon natives who graduated from high school only a year apart in the early 1980s.

Neither Doug Preston, who works as the general manager of the Residence Inn in Centerra Park and is a 1982 graduate of Lebanon High School, nor Suzan Louzier, an operating room nurse at the White River Junction VA Medical Center who graduated a year later in 1983, have held public office before.

School Board member Al Patterson has served a one-year term and a three-year term, while Christina Haidari has served one three-year term.

Voters on Tuesday will also decide the fate of the $37.6 million school budget. School Board Chairman Hank Tenney last month expressed mild surprise that there hasn’t been more feedback on the budget proposal, which — if approved along with three school district employee contracts also on the ballot — would add nearly $370 to the school portion of annual property taxes on a home assessed at $250,000.

Tenney said that he hadn’t heard much about the budget since the district’s Feb. 2 deliberative session and wondered if city residents might be fatigued from the ongoing budgetary process that goes “on and on.”

The proposed budget, if approved, would add $1.06 per $1,000 of valuation to the school tax rate. Pay raises would total $661,000 under the teachers contract and add an additional 38 cents to the tax rate. The contract calls for 1.5 percent cost of living raises for teachers in each of the next two school years. The secretaries and administrators contracts, which would cost about $47,500 combined, would add 3 cents.

All told, the budget and the contracts would add $1.47 per $1,000 of assessed value to the school tax rate, an increase that would raise the annual property taxes of a home assessed at $250,000 by $368.

An anticipated reduction of more than $400,000 in state aid for next year’s budget, along with a 25 percent increase in employer contributions to the state retirement plan that would cost about $466,000, are contributing to the increase.

Yet another factor affecting the budget is the district’s effort to maintain student-to-teacher ratios. The addition of several positions in schools throughout the district would total $817,000 in new wages.

In terms of the School Board race, both Preston and Louzier are self-described fiscal conservatives with at least one child still active in the Lebanon school system.

Preston, a father of five, has twin sons in sixth grade and three daughters who have all graduated high school. Louzier, meanwhile, has a daughter who has already graduated and a son who is preparing to enter Lebanon High School.

As a general manager at a hotel, Preston described the budgetary process as a strength of his, but he said he would go into school board meetings “with a clear mind.”

“I have no agenda,” he said. “I want to do what’s right for the community and the kids.”

While Louzier said she doesn’t have a problem with the amount of money the district is spending, she said she wanted to compare Lebanon to other New Hampshire school district budgets and make sure that “we are getting the results that we should be getting.”

“We have one of the larger school budgets in the state, so what are we doing with it?” said Louzier.

Louzier said she had been thinking about running for the School Board for several years, but decided to run this year due to increased frustration with what she described as a “lack of answers” coming from district officials about long-term plans to alter course curriculum and school programs.

She said one of her main motivations was to make sure that all of the district’s school children were being challenged, including the “bright ones.”

“Everybody is being driven to do more with less, but when it comes to our kids ... this country is falling behind,” she said. “We can’t get comfortable, or our kids are just going to be flipping burgers.”

Patterson said he spoke with Louzier before she decided to run and encouraged her campaign. He described himself as “very excited” that she’s running.

“She’ll be a good asset to the district,” said Patterson. “She’ll bring what I think is some fiscal soundness to the district and ... her educational concerns are going to be a plus to the district as well.”

As for Patterson, a police officer in Hanover, he said he was running for reelection to advocate for reigning in spending, though he said that the quality of education is a concern of his as well. He added that the budget has gotten “crazy.”

“It’s going to be $40 million before too long,” Patterson said. “All we do is keep raising our bottom line — raise it and raise it.”

Haidari, who has two children at Lebanon High, said she was running again because she had enjoyed her time on the board so far, and that she wanted to continue forward with the “important work” of managing the school district. She said that as the budget in the district has grown, a more concerted effort is needed to strike a balance between containing costs without sacrificing the quality of education.

Patterson pointed to staff pay increases and benefits, which he said have weighed too heavily on the budget, and added that the trend of climbing teacher salaries “is going to be what bankrupts our education system.”

The average teacher’s salary in Lebanon this school year is $59,241, about $4,925 above the statewide average.

Patterson said he would support a merit-based pay system where teachers are evaluated on their classroom performance, a concept that has come up in past policy discussions in Lebanon.

“Even if two people have the exact same degree, the exact same education, it would be absurd to expect that they should be paid equally if their work is not equal,” he said.

Louzier, too, said she would support a merit-pay system in theory, but she would want it to be “transparent” and would need to have a better understanding of the structure. She added that some hospitals she has worked in have had “peer review processes,” which she said “can be a really wonderful thing ... if people are being very candid and honest and they’re not coming at it with some agenda.”

Preston said he liked the idea of a merit-pay system, but it would have to “meet budget guidelines.”
“In anything you do, you should have quality,” he said. “If we’re doing evaluations properly and going through the budget properly, I don’t see how there would be any type of negativity toward doing that.”

Haidari also weighed in on the general concept of merit-pay, though, like other candidates, she said more detailed information was needed. She said that such a system could help teachers work toward improving classroom activities and learning, but she added it would have to reward teachers who are performing well and not just institute “favoritism” into the pay scale.

“Those are the kind of things we have to talk about,” said Haidari. “If we create the evaluation system, then we have to manage those issues to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213