Full Plate For Voters In Cornish

Cornish school meeting will be held Saturday, March 8, at 1 p.m. in the Cornish Elementary School gym. Ballot voting for elected officials will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cornish Town Meeting will begin at noon on Tuesday, March 11 in the Cornish Elementary School gym. Ballot voting for elected officials will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Cornish — Residents will have their hands full at the town and school meetings this month, when they’ll vote on a school budget that would cut back teaching positions and potentially combine two grades, and a town budget that would increase the tax rate by more than a dollar. They’ll also consider a petition a rticle that would hand over power of selecting a road agent to the Selectboard, choose among three candidates for the position, decide whether to explore withdrawing from their current school administrative unit, consider abandoning traditional meeting style on the school side, and handle contested elections on the Selectboard and School Board.

School Budget Scaled Back

On the school side, voters are facing a budget and warrant articles that, if passed, would decrease the school tax rate by two pennies, as declining enrollment at Cornish’s K-8 elementary school continues to force the school board into a balancing act between the school’s needs and taxpayer’s wallets. Enrollment dropped to 113 this year, from 142 in the fall of 2003, and is expected to continue downward.

The savings — which amount to a $5 decrease on a tax bill for a $250,000 home — would come at the cost of one full-time teaching position at Cornish Elementary School, which could lead administrators to combine two grades during the upcoming school year.

Those are a few of the changes outlined in a document by SAU 6, of which Cornish is a member, following a deliberative session early last month when school board members accepted about $85,500 in cuts to the proposed budget, many of them suggested from the crowd, said Tim Ball, the SAU’s director of business and finance.

The document provides the example of combining grade 4, which is projected to have 12 students, with grade 5, which will likely have 11.

Other staff hours were also reduced, including those of the librarian, school guidance counselor, and, in the summer, the principal. A $1,000 line item to pay five School Board members for the year was also nixed.

The result is cuts to general education, special education, and administration, and a total operating budget down half a percent, to less than $3.6 million.

But a step increase for teacher salaries and warrant articles to provide for a 2013-14 deficit, among other things, bring costs back up to being about level-funded.

If all is approved, residents would face a local school tax rate of $12.63 per $1,000 of assessed value, down from $12.65. Not including the state school tax rate, that would mean a tax bill of about $3,158 on a $250,000 home, down from about $3,163.

At the deliberative session and other meetings, residents have been divided on the proposal, Ball said, noting the disagreement does not break down across parents vs. non-parents lines, and people from both groups are on both sides of the issue.

“The staffing was the controversial thing and that’s what the conversation is going to be about (at the annual school meeting),” Ball said. “I go to every (school) board meeting and ... you’ll find a room full of people who are against any of these cuts, but if you go to the (annual) school meeting, I’d venture to say there are more people who are in favor of these cuts. ... There’s certainly no consensus.”

SAU Under Consideration

A line increasing in the budget is the fees to SAU 6, whose budget increased by 20 percent. Each of the towns in the SAU — Cornish, Claremont and Unity — contribute to the unit’s budget, which was set following public hearings late last year. Cornish’s contribution increased by more than $36,000.

Voters will be asked to consider whether to study the possibility of leaving SAU 6 down the line in Warrant Article 9. If approved, a planning committee would be formed to “study the advisability of withdrawing from SAU 6 and pursuing options that include joining or purchasing services from another SAU.”

The warrant article was one of the outcomes of a separate committee of Plainfield and Cornish residents, who were charged with studying the ways the two towns could better work together.

Town Budget Up

If the $1.08 million town operating budget and all warrant articles pass, the current tax rate of $2.77 per $1,000 of assessed value would rise to $3.79, said Selectboard Chairwoman Merilynn Bourne.

That’s lower than many towns, she said, “but the taxpayer is going to notice that.”

The new tax rate would result in a $948 tax bill on a $250,000 home, an increase of $255 over last year’s bill, or a jump of 37 percent.

Much of the 13 percent increase to the budget is driven by the highway budget, Bourne said, which is up almost $65,000. For example, a local sand-and-gravel pit closed down, forcing the town to buy those supplies from farther away at a higher cost, she said. The cost of sand alone about doubled.

Other increases are found in public safety. The part-time police department was previously primarily staffed on nights and weekends, but has increased its daytime hours to keep up with the times, resulting in a 30 percent increase in the budget for police salaries, Bourne said.

The Selectboard is also asking voters to create a capital reserve fund for paving projects and to raise $50,000 to be added to it.

Bourne said residents expressed support for increased public safety at prior public hearings. She’s also hopeful that voters understand that the town is “between a rock and hard place” with highway supplies and see the benefit in creating the paving fund.

“They understand the wisdom behind that,” she said of the reasons for spending. “I don’t think they like it, but they understand it.”

Road Agent Post Draws Candidates, Debate

By gathering 25 signatures, residents petitioned a warrant article that would authorize the Selectboard to hire the town road agent, a position that is currently elected to a one-year term by voters.

Although the Selectboard did not officially endorse the article, the board brought a similar proposal before voters about five years ago, when it was voted down, Bourne said.

Bourne said she personally supports the measure, as the job requirements for road agent are ever-growing, and the post requires “skill sets for the 21st century,” including managing four personnel, understanding the evolving nature of road and equipment maintenance, and overseeing a complicated budget as road costs continue to rise.

She likes having Cornish residents as road agents, she said, but an appointed position would open up the candidates list if townspeople are uninterested or unqualified.

“What happens if you don’t have anyone in town without that kind of training and knowledge and somebody runs off hand … ?,” Bourne said. “It’s up to the voters, and the voters are conflicted. They like the idea of having that voice, that vote, but I think a lot of them are beginning to see over time that in this day and age ... whoever has that position has to be skilled.”

A lack of interest in the position is not a problem this year, as three people — Dan Flynn, Wayne Gray and Richard Kimball — are vying for the post left open by Kyle Witty, who is not on the ballot.

Flynn, 58, has lived in town for about 18 years, said his wife, Becky Flynn. He served as road agent for five years before Witty, and has run against him every year since then, she said. He works in construction in the summer and for Kimball Union Academy facilities during the school year.

Dan Flynn was unavailable to comment because of extended work commitments.

“He would like to try to save the town some money again, and try to keep the budget back in order, because from what we hear ... it’s gone over quite a lot this year,” Becky Flynn said. “He feels that he’s done it once before, he could bring it back to place, and he liked working for the town.”

Becky Flynn noted that her husband has his commercial driver’s license and “can run any piece of equipment,” and has worked professionally installing roads and bridges. Dan Flynn is against the proposal to make road agent an appointed position, but would prefer three-year terms over the current single year, she said.

“If you get anything planned and then you get out in March, a year doesn’t give you time enough to finish your projects that you were working on,” Becky Flynn said.

Gray, 48, a 19-year resident of Cornish, has been on the board for the Cornish Fair since moving to town, and currently serves as its president. He worked in construction and carpentry for 25 years, he said, and thinks his relationship with folks in town would help him to serve as road agent.

“I’ve dealt with the selectmen, dealt with a lot of people in town, the school, other organizations,” he said.

He also said he would make himself available to residents.

“Dealing with the people, if they have questions … I’m open, feel free for them to call me, I’m willing to listen to anything that the people have got to say.”

He said he still has questions about the appointment vs. elected question on the position, and has not yet decided if he prefers one over the other.

Kimball, 60, said he moved to Cornish in 1987 and has worked for the City of Claremont in road maintenance positions for 24 years, currently for parks and recreation and previously for the highway department.

The Jackson Road resident said he doesn’t have a preference on whether the position should be voted or elected, but decided to run this year at the urging of his neighbors, who — like him — have been unhappy with recent road conditions.

“If I do get it, I’ll try my best to keep the roads best I can make it. Right now they’re not very safe,” he said, suggesting that several Cornish roads are too icy and under-treated.

Newcomer Challenges Selectboard Incumbent

Bourne is seeking her fourth three-year term. She faces a challenge from Dale Lawrence, who served on the Volunteer Fire Department for 20 years and is currently president of the Cornish Rescue Squad.

Bourne, 67, has served as executive director at Listen Community Services since 2001, and has lived in Cornish for about 40 years. Four of her grand children attend Cornish Elementary School.

Bourne said she hopes to finish out projects in the works, including emergency operations and road maintenance drafts. She said her experience at the helm of Listen, which has more than 40 employees and a budget sized similarly to the town’s, has been valuable to the board.

“I would like to think I bring a lot of skill sets and a lot of experiences to the table,” she said.

Lawrence, 53, has lived in Cornish since her childhood and also raised her family in town. She’s worked as administrative assistant at Cornish Elementary School for 25 years.

In addition to her time on the fire and rescue squads, she is finishing up her fourth year as cemetery sexton, a post for which she is not seeking re-election. If elected to the Selectboard, Lawrence said, her goals would include “trying to keep the cost of living via taxes down so that this community can remain open for anybody to live in,” she said.

“It’s important for me having grown up here and seeing a lot of families come through to make it so that ... anybody coming to live or raise a family (would be) able to enjoy what I’ve been able to enjoy,” she said.

School Board Races

Four candidates are vying for two seats on the School Board, with the seats going to the top two vote-getters.

They include three people on the ballot — Cathy Parks, Caroline Storrs and Holly Taft — and a resident running a write-in campaign, Krista Fellows Merrihew.

An additional person listed on the ballot, David Aguiar, confirmed to the Valley News that he has withdrawn from the race because of changes in his professional life.

Parks, 42, and Taft, 37, placed an emphasis on keeping costs down.

“The expenses at the school are extremely high, enrollment keeps dropping and it’s really squeezing the taxpayer base,” said Parks, who has a 21/2-year-old son and works as production and planning manager at Rollerblade USA in West Lebanon. “So I think it’s a good time to really take a close look at what’s going on for the taxpayers and also provide a quality education for the kids.”

She supports the $85,500 in cuts made at last month’s deliberative session, “not because I don’t care about people’s jobs, but because we are at a critical point and tough decisions need to be made.”

Taft also supported the budget reduction. A speech language pathologist who moved to Cornish from Windsor in recent years and has three young children, she said that, if elected, she would be the “voice of fiscal responsibility, trying to make some of those hard cuts.”

“I think they could easily combine at least two grades, maybe four,” she said. “I don’t think it would be outrageous to combine (smaller classrooms) into one 19-child classroom.”

Storrs, 61, and Merrihew, 43, said they, too, are ready to cut back costs and make tough decisions, but had reservations about some aspects of the cuts made at February’s deliberative session.

Storrs, who retired in 2013 after a 36-year teaching career at the school, said she feels it’s “time to consolidate some of the classrooms” because of declining enrollment.

“But I do feel that we need to support the whole child,” she continued, “and would not like to see cuts to the library, to the guidance counselor, and especially I would not like to see a cut to the principal, from a full-time position down to a .9 position.”

Merrihew, a nurse manager at four different clinics, grew up in Cornish where she had Storrs as a teacher. Merrihew has a daughter at the school and her son, a college freshman, graduated from it.

Although she said combining classrooms “might be the way to go,” she raised concerns that the process would be too chaotic if implemented for the upcoming school year, fearing teachers would not have enough time to restructure their curriculum for multiple grades with a wide range of learners within them.

“Even my son had combined classes but we didn’t have … all of these new standards that teachers have to meet to show proficiency,” she said. “If we say, ‘as of September you need to learn how to teach both of these (grade levels)’ ... it’s already hard in a class when you’ve got kids who are reading way above grade level and way below grade level.”

She raised concerns about cutting back staff positions, as well, especially the counselor post, when there are other areas of the budget that might be better to cut. She said she and Storrs have consistently attended School Board meetings, making them good fits for the job.

The candidates each expressed varying levels of enthusiasm for potentially leaving the SAU in the future, but all supported the idea of forming a committee to explore the concept.

School Meeting Format Debated

The candidates also appeared divided about a petitioned warrant article that would abandon traditional school meeting, in which the articles are read aloud, discussed and voted on publicly, in favor of so-called “SB-2,” the name for the legislation that allows for school districts to host a public session followed weeks later by all-ballot voting.

Parks and Taft supported SB-2, while Storrs and Merrihew expressed reservations.

Storrs said she felt the traditional school district meeting provides an important opportunity “for us to come together as a community once a year to decide together what our goals and budget demands should be.”

Merrihew called the proposal a “big concern,” as few people attend school board meetings and budget hearings.

“And now we’re going to have everyone be able to vote on something they are potentially getting information from just from their neighbors who have got their own take on it,” she said. “It’s part of the fabric of Cornish to be able to speak up and hear why it is a teacher wants this or why it is we cant afford this or what other options have been explored.”

Taft, though, suggested that the current format of voting in public allows for a “certain level of intimidation or a rushed feeling.” Hearing the presentation and voting in private weeks later would be preferable, she said.

Parks agreed, saying the main reason she supports SB-2 is because she hopes it would give people more time to think about their vote between the public information session and casting their ballots. She suggested too small a fraction of the population is making decisions “with no time to process the facts” before voting.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.