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Haverhill Members Thwarted in Bid to Boot SAU 23 Superintendent

  • Superintendent Bruce Labs attends an SAU-23 School Board meeting that was convened to decied whether or not to revote on extending his contract for the 2014-2015 school year at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School in North Haverhill, N.H. on October 28, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)

    Superintendent Bruce Labs attends an SAU-23 School Board meeting that was convened to decied whether or not to revote on extending his contract for the 2014-2015 school year at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School in North Haverhill, N.H. on October 28, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Superintendent Bruce Labs attends an SAU-23 School Board meeting that was convened to decied whether or not to revote on extending his contract for the 2014-2015 school year at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School in North Haverhill, N.H. on October 28, 2013. (Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage)
Bruce Labs

Bruce Labs

North Haverhill — An effort to unseat the SAU 23 superintendent failed Monday night when the district’s attorney said the School Board had used an incorrect formula to tally a weighted vote earlier this month.

The announcement, which was greeted by applause and cheers in the audience, followed 45 minutes of public discussion in a packed Haverhill Cooperative Middle School cafeteria.

About 70 people showed up from the supervisory union’s five towns — Haverhill, Piermont, Warren, Benton and Bath — to debate whether a faction of Haverhill board members had acted properly when they used a weighted vote on Oct. 16 to block a renewal of longtime superintendent Bruce Labs’ contract for the 2014-15 school year.

The SAU board is made up of each individual town boards. The weighted vote uses a formula in state law to give each SAU board member’s vote a “weight” that is proportional to the number of students from the member’s town. At the end of the last school year, Haverhill had about 740 students in the district, compared to a little more than 300 students from the other four districts combined.

Gordon B. Graham, an attorney who represents the school district, said officials erred when they only considered the weighting formula as described in one part of state statute, and disregarded a corresponding piece of state statute that gives each town in the union additional “representative” votes depending on whether that town hosts a school.

In other words, Graham explained, each of the towns should have had at least one, and sometimes three, additional votes added onto the weighted results.

Graham said his interpretation is widely accepted and applied in other cases. Although members who called for the weighted vote had received legal advice from an attorney, Graham said that attorney was incorrect.

“This is English, folks,” he said, in reference to reading statute. “This is not one that’s subject to multiple interpretations.”

The original calculation had suggested that Haverhill’s five members — despite being in the minority against 12 other SAU board members, including two other members from Haverhill — had succeeded in voting not to renew Labs’ contract by a weighted tally of 32.85 to 32.12.

Applying the correct formula, district Financial Manger Pat Amsden said the same vote actually meant the measure not to renew Labs’ contract failed, 42.92 to 35.

SAU Board Chairman Don Bagley, of Warren, announced that the correct calculation meant that Labs’ contract was renewed, which was met by cheers and applause from many of the attendees. They had criticized the use of the weighted vote, which officials said has not been used in the district for about 20 years, because it was applied without warning and sought to override the voice of smaller towns in the union.

James Roy, a former Bath School Board chairman, said the move by five of Haverhill’s board members bred a feeling of distrust.

If the weighted votes continue, Roy said, “the Bath taxpayers are going to have to have a discussion about whether they feel they’re going to be properly represented. I just feel like a big decision like this wasn’t the time to bring a change about the way the SAU runs.”

Others defended it as a fair way for the Haverhill board to represent its interests. Unlike other towns in the district, they said, Haverhill parents have to pay out of pocket if they want to send their students to a high school other than Woodsville, which some said was in need of improvement that they felt could be spurred with a new superintendent.

In comparison, Warren voters at the last school district meeting voted to allow school choice so that parents could send students to neighboring Rivendell Academy or Lisbon Regional School on the taxpayer’s dime.

North Haverhill resident Kristen May, who has children at the middle school and high school, said that she disagreed with the lack of transparency behind the action of the five Haverhill members and she respected Labs.

Indeed, other School Board members lamented that the five Haverhill members had never given a reason why they wanted Labs out in the first place. But, May said, she felt like the district needed higher educational standards and that changing the superintendent was the right way to achieve that.

“I wish that our board, the Haverhill board, had discussed this more with the (SAU board),” she said, adding, “with that being said, because we’ve got the bigger representation, we’ve got the larger numbers, we should have a little more say.”

Haverhill School Board member John Rutherford made the motion not to renew Labs’ contract and to employ the weighted vote during the Oct. 16 meeting, and it was backed by Haverhill chairman Dick Guy, Maryanne Aldrich, Nicole Horne and Jay Waterhouse. After the meeting Monday, Guy and Aldrich said they were satisfied with the meeting’s outcome and wanted the correct formula to be applied.

Don Bazzell, a Haverhill board member who wanted Labs’ contract renewed, said he felt the weighted vote had “disenfranchised” the other towns.

Labs, in his 11th year as superintendent, has served in the district for 36 years. His salary for the current school year is $101,588.

“I want you to know that I’m grateful, but if I’m not the person that you need to have in this position, I’ll gladly step down,” he told the crowd at the end of the meeting. “I don’t want to be here if you don’t want me here.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com.