Croydon residents outraged after school budget cut in half with meeting-day amendment

  • Thomas Moore, who stepped down from his position as chair of the Croydon, N.H., school board this year, voices his anger in a meeting of the new board in Croydon, N.H., on Monday, March 14, 2022, after voters slashed the $1.7 million school budget that he helped craft by over 50% in response to an amendment from the floor last Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • School board Chair Jody Underwood, middle, reacts to comments from a resident at the Croydon, N.H., Town Hall on Monday, March 14, 2022, during a meeting at which townspeople voiced their frustration over the more than 50% reduction to the school budget that passed at Saturday's annual school meeting. The amendment to cut the budget was proposed by Underwood's husband, Selectman Ian Underwood. At left is school board member Aaron McKeon and at right is newly elected school board member Kevin Morris. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Croydon, N.H., Selectboard Member Ian Underwood listens during a meeting of the Schoolboard, of which his wife Jody Underwood is chair, at the Town Hall on Monday, March 14, 2022. An amendment he proposed to cut the school budget from a proposed $1.79 million to $800,000 passed at the town's annual school meeting on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lisa Fellows, of Croydon, voices her frustrations with the Croydon, N.H., school board at the Town Hall on Monday, March 14, 2022, to address the school budget, which voters attending Saturday's annual school meeting amended from a proposed $1.7 million to $800,000. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As the Croydon school board adjourns its meeting to address a more than 50% cut to its budget on Monday night, March 14, 2022, Hunter Jones, 16, of Croydon, does his nightly two-hour cleaning of the Croydon, N.H., Village School. Jones attended the school from kindergarten to fourth grade and now attends Newport High School where he is taking a welding class and considering a career in the trade. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/15/2022 10:57:08 PM
Modified: 3/15/2022 10:57:46 PM

CROYDON — The Croydon School Board got an earful Monday evening as about 75 people turned out to oppose what 20 town voters had approved days earlier.

On Saturday, during the school portion of Town Meeting, a motion from the floor reduced the advertised proposed budget of just over $1.7 million to $800,000 — a 53% cut — and was approved, 20-14.

Disbelief spread through the town over the next two days, culminating in Monday’s meeting where residents’ disappointment with the reduction was given a full-throated voice.

School board members Jody Underwood, Aaron McKeon and Kevin Morris faced a withering onslaught for more than three hours as residents questioned how the school was expected to operate on less than half of its proposed budget.

Angi Beaulieu, a former school board member, directed her ire at Underwood, whose husband, Ian, made the motion on Saturday to slash the school budget.

“I’m ashamed and disgusted by this reckless budget that was proposed by your husband,” Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu recalled that when the board she served on brought school choice to Croydon, the board held meeting after meeting and advertised what was being proposed and gave people a chance to comment on it and be part of the decision.

“It was not sprung on people at a meeting where it was going to be voted on,” Beaulieu said. “This was done recklessly and irresponsibly.”

School business administrator Beth Bierwirth answered the question many had come to Monday’s meeting to ask: Could the budget vote be overturned or somehow corrected?

The answer, according to Bierwirth, is no. She said she had spent the day on the phone with state officials and the conclusion was the vote had resulted in a legal budget that couldn’t be changed.

“The meeting Saturday is a legally binding meeting,” Bierwirth said. “Your budget is $800,000.”

The Croydon Village School has 24 students in grades K-4. And the town pays tuition for 49 Croydon students in grades 5 through 12 to attend schools in neighboring communities.

Bierwith said that if after trying to operate under the approved budget and finding it untenable, school officials could petition in court to be allowed to approve emergency spending.

“At this point and time, that budget is the legal budget,” Bierwirth said.

Town Clerk Kristi McKeon, who is school board member Aaron McKeon’s wife, also said she had researched the question and was told the vote was binding.

“What happened at the school meeting was perfectly legal, and there’s not really anything that can be done to change it,” Kristi McKeon said.

Many in Monday’s audience were incredulous that such a move could be allowed.

Board chairwoman Jody Underwood repeatedly told the crowd she had not supported the $800,000 budget, but each time she did, the crowd loudly, and occasionally profanely, objected.

Doubt about Underwood’s claim was fueled by the fact her own husband, Selectboard member Ian Underwood, who made the motion at Town Meeting to slash the budget.

Many on Monday accused the board of being in on the plan.

Ian Underwood told the crowd his wife didn’t know of his intentions until a couple of days before the meeting, and McKeon said he learned about it the night before.

Morris, who was elected to the board just last week at Town Meeting, said he didn’t know about the budget cut in advance.

One man complained the board had handed out copies of a pamphlet created by Ian Underwood, titled “Budget, or Ransom,” at Monday’s meeting. (The pamphlet was also handed out at Saturday’s meeting.)

Jody Underwood said the board distributed the pamphlet so there were no allegations of trying to hide anything.

While Ian Underwood remained mostly silent at Monday’s meeting, he did speak briefly, once to deny his wife’s involvement in his proposal and another to argue that the $800,000 budget was sufficient, though he did not offer any specifics.

“I really do believe it is possible to live within this budget if we try hard enough,” Ian Underwood said. “To say we can’t do this is a failure of imagination.”

In his pamphlet, Underwood noted that private schools, including the Newport Montessori school and Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, charge less than $9,000 for tuition.

He used a figure of 80 students for Croydon and a per pupil cost of $10,000 to come up with his $800,000 figure.

Ian Underwood also defended himself against those who pointed their finger at him.

“People keep saying I did this,” he said. “The town voted for this.”

McKeon, the town clerk, said the town has 565 registered voters, meaning 3.5% of registered voters voted in favor of Underwood’s budget cut.

The board opened Monday’s meeting and quickly handled post-Town Meeting housekeeping, reelecting Jody Underwood as chairwoman and naming McKeon vice-chairman and Morris as secretary.

But the meeting quickly lost decorum during public comment as the audience regularly erupted with cheers for speakers they approved of and howled displeasure with those with whom they disagreed.

The overwhelming majority was there to oppose the new budget number, but a few people spoke in support. Other supporters sat silently toward the front of the room, before leaving early.

Jim Peschke urged the board to hold its ground and disregard those who said the $800,000 budget was feasible.

“This is going to be a challenge,” Peschke said. “There are too many excuses behind our failures. We’re getting crap results with business as usual. We need greater solutions. You can do this.”

Most, however, disagreed with that sentiment.

Beaulieu, the former board member, warned taxpayers who might be excited about the massive reduction on their taxes the change would bring that such a drastic drop would most assuredly create a correction in the ensuing years.

“Save your money,” Beaulieu said. “Your taxes are going to skyrocket.”

(The $1.7 million budget proposal on Saturday’s warrant came with an estimated property tax increase of nearly 19%.)

Monday’s meeting was marked by several testy exchanges.

Early on in the more than three-hour meeting, Jody Underwood’s attempt to call an end to public comment was met with angry opposition.

The comment period continued and tensions eased, but a steady stream of speakers lined up at the microphone to share their concerns. Some speakers got in line more than once, unable to vent all of their frustrations in a single trip.

Several in attendance took issue with how Jody Underwood managed the meeting.

One speaker, Samantha O’Day, arrived at the meeting after it had started, walked through the door and directly to the mic and told the board she had been trying to listen from home via Zoom but couldn’t hear anything “except Jody (Underwood) interrupting everybody who tried to talk.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” she added.

Toward the end of the meeting, as the large crowd had dwindled to a dozen or so participants, cooler heads mostly prevailed and some who had spoken passionately earlier in the evening told the board they wanted to be part of the discussion to find solutions.

The board has until early April to submit its 2022-23 budget to the state, and the board plans to do just that, scheduling another meeting for 7 p.m. Thursday, at the Croydon Village School.

Darren Marcy can be reached at 603-727-3216 or dmarcy@vnews.com.




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