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Croydon School Board’s first meeting after budget reversal features call to resign, push for pods

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 5/12/2022 10:28:58 PM
Modified: 5/12/2022 10:29:02 PM

CROYDON — The Croydon School Board returned to business on Wednesday with a new budget of $1.7 million to fund the 2022-23 school year, but residents attending the meeting said they plan to keep a watchful, wary eye on board members moving forward.

The board’s first meeting following a dramatic special meeting, in which residents voted, 377-2, to restore the budget to the originally proposed level after a meeting-day floor motion in March cut it by more than half, ran comparatively smoothly for the Croydon board. Meetings for the past two months have been dominated by Croydon parents, educators and school supporters lodging criticism and accusations against board members.

The board assured residents Wednesday that current staffing, contracted services and tuition agreements will remain the same next school year. The board renewed all staffing contracts, including for Superintendent Frank Perotti, who received a one-year renewal following a performance review held in nonpublic session.

The board also approved two tuition agreements with partnering private schools, including Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee and Newport Montessori School.

Perotti said new contracts will need to be drawn with the Claremont and Sunapee school districts though the town’s contract with Newport, which enrolls 20 Croydon students in grades 9-12, is still active and does not require action.

Despite the resolution to the district’s funding crisis, many of the 30 residents who attended Wednesday’s meeting said their trust in some board members has evaporated.

During public comments, resident Amanda Leslie put forth a petition with 170 signatures calling for board Chair Jody Underwood and Vice Chair Aaron McKeon to resign.

Leslie, who created the petition May 5, said she is still collecting signatures and is not ready to submit it.

The petition alleges that in recent months, Underwood and McKeon have “engaged in illegal meetings” and prioritized their own “political agendas’ over “the will of the people and the requirement to provide an adequate education.”

Underwood and McKeon both worked to support the budget cut in the two months since it was passed during the annual School Meeting in March, when Underwood’s husband, Ian Underwood, moved to slash the budget from the proposed $1.7 million to $800,000. The amendment passed, 20-14.

The petition seeking Jody Underwood and McKeon’s resignation is nonbinding, since state law prevents elected officials from forced removal by a petition. Leslie told the Valley News that her intent is to illustrate how many Croydon residents have lost trust in the board members.

The petition’s reference to “illegal meetings” pertains to a meeting in March that Underwood and McKeon attended with state Department of Education officials to discuss options for Croydon after the budget cut. The gathering constituted an illegal quorum because a majority of the board was discussing school district business outside a public meeting.

Underwood and McKeon said they did not realize they were violating state law at the time.

Resident Jim Peschke, a defender of Underwood and McKeon and outspoken supporter of the original budget cut, scolded supporters of the petition, saying there was no reason for residents to “maintain the acrimony” now that the budget was settled.

“(Underwood’s and McKeon’s) only crime is that they disagreed with the people in this town,” Peschke said.

After the Wednesday meeting, Underwood and McKeon told the Valley News that they have no intention to resign from the School Board.

McKeon said he had no plans to push a political agenda. The board had a responsibility to create a feasible plan to run the school district within the $800,000 budget, as there was no assurance that the vote at Saturday’s special meeting would successfully restore the funding.

“My whole intention was to make the plan work in case the budget still stood,” McKeon said. “We had to prepare for two eventualities.”

Though McKeon had previously voiced support for the $800,000 budget, McKeon does not regret the board’s time exploring fiscal solutions that are no longer necessary. He cited the push to learn about microschools, or learning pods, a small-group learning module consisting of approximately five to 10 students per instructor. They were proposed as the only viable fully funded option for Croydon students under the reduced budget.

The board was considering contracts with two microschool companies, KaiPod and Prenda, to be the primary education provider for all grades, with Prenda to oversee the elementary grades and KaiPod to serve grades 5-8.

The proposal received heavy criticism from families, who objected to being pushed into learning pods as a first-resort education option. Under that plan the Croydon board would cover only $9,000 of tuition for students who choose other schools, leaving their families to pay the remainder out of pocket.

That amount falls thousands short of tuition at area public schools, which roughly 30 of Croydon’s 49 school choice students attend.

While the microschools will no longer be a necessity, the board said Wednesday that it would like to consider adding them as an additional school choice for high school students next year, provided there is sufficient interest from families.

“I have heard from quite a few parents that microschools could actually serve them well if it was a choice they could make,” Jody Underwood said.

KaiPod, a microschool provider based in Massachusetts, provides a selection of online curricula, including an online Montessori school, which McKeon touted as a “logical choice” for Croydon. Seventeen Croydon students are enrolled at Newport Montessori, which teaches up to the eighth grade; McKeon suggested KaiPod could allow them to continue on that path in high school.

The School Board intends to hold an open house in the coming weeks so families can learn more about the KaiPod program. The district would need to guarantee a minimum enrollment of six students to contract the company’s services.

Residents on Wednesday did not voice objection to the board’s proposal, so long as microschools would only be an additional learning choice.

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