Croydon reverses slashing of school budget after voters turn out for special meeting

  • Willis Ballou holds the only two no votes cast at a special meeting to reconsider the Croydon school budget at Camp Coniston in Croydon, N.H, on Saturday, May 7, 2022. Ballot Clerk Edward Little, right, counts the 377 votes in favor of adopting the originally proposed $1.7 million budget for the 2022-23 school year. Advocates of the $800,000 budget, adopted at a sparsely attended annual school meeting in March, urged those who supported their budget to stay home from Saturday's meeting. (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 School Board Chair Jody Underwood waits to distribute information to voters arriving at a special meeting at Camp Coniston in Croydon, N.H., on Saturday, May 7, 2022, called to reconsider the originally proposed $1.7 million budget for the 2022-2023 school year. At the annual school meeting in March, Underwood's husband, Ian, proposed an $800,000 budget that passed by a vote of 20-14. (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

  • Tommy Spiker, 17, a junior at Newport High School and the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center, second from right, and Grace Prunier, a sophomore at Sunapee Middle High School, third from left, wait for Moderator Bruce Jasper, not pictured, to approve their request to speak in a special meeting to reconsider the Croydon, N.H., school budget at Camp Coniston on May 7, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Croydon Superintendent Frank Perotti watches as votes are counted to determine if the town will adopt its originally proposed $1.7 million budget for the 2022-23 school year during a special meeting at Camp Coniston in Croydon, N.H., on Saturday, May 7, 2022. "It's an amazing display of democracy in a town not willing to be taken over by some political philosophy that doesn't resonate well with history," said Perotti. "It's emotional to see this happen." (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

  • Angi Beaulieu, center left, and her sister Amie Freak, center right, celebrate as the results of a vote to approve the Croydon School District's originally proposed $1.7 million budget are announced during a special meeting at Camp Coniston in Croydon, N.H., on Saturday, May 7, 2022. In order for the vote to be valid, 283 voters, or half of the town's voter checklist as of March 12, needed to participate. The measure passed, 377-2. (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 Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2022 7:29:16 PM
Modified: 5/7/2022 7:29:36 PM

CROYDON — Nearly 60% of Croydon’s registered voters filled the vast dining hall at Camp Coniston to standing-room-only capacity on Saturday and reinstated the small town’s $1.7 million school budget.

The vote count was 377-2, and its announcement by Moderator Bruce Jasper was greeted by prolonged cheering. Residents and public officials alike hailed the meeting as an example of the power of democracy, and perhaps an overdue reminder.

“I’m glad people showed up, and I hope they remember this,” said Croydon resident Chris Gardner, who with wife Deb Gardner put three children through Croydon Village School. “This was a lucky do-over.”

Saturday’s vote reverses the March 12 annual meeting approval of an $800,000 budget, which was proposed from the floor that day by Free State Project member Ian Underwood and approved by a vote of 20-14. For Saturday’s budget reversal to count, the meeting needed a quorum of more than half the town’s 565 registered voters as of the March meeting.

While Saturday’s vote brings Croydon back to the status quo, it likely won’t end the debate over how to deliver education and over the role of the Free State Project in town.

The K-4 Croydon Village School, which currently educates 24 children, will operate as expected next year, and Croydon students in grades 5 to 12 will continue to attend schools of their choice, including public schools in Newport and Sunapee and private schools in the area. There are 53 Croydon students at several area schools.

The $800,000 budget would have likely necessitated the use of “micro-schools,” pods of students that could use school grounds, but would learn mainly online and at their own pace. After the March 12 meeting, state education officials recommended two micro-school companies to Croydon school officials.

We Stand with Croydon Students, the group that organized and petitioned for Saturday’s vote, is now gathering signatures calling for two members of the School Board who supported the reduced budget, Chairwoman Jody Underwood and Aaron McKeon, to step down.

“The town does not trust them and does not want them,” said Amanda Leslie, one of the group’s organizers. The same goes for Free State Project members on other town boards, which would include Ian Underwood, who is Jody’s husband and a member of the town Selectboard.

“They moved here to try to change things, but we don’t want to change things, not in the way they want,” Leslie said.

McKeon, who moved to town in 2019, said he is not affiliated with the Free State Project.

Ian Underwood did not attend Saturday’s meeting. In response to a text message he said the following: “The object lesson presented today for the benefit of Croydon’s children: If one person uses the threat of force to take money away from one other person who doesn’t want to give it to him, that’s theft, and it’s bad. But if 380 people use the threat of force to take money away from 420 people who don’t want to give it to them, that’s democracy, and it’s good. I wonder how you’re supposed to raise moral children in a society that operates this way?”

Croydon’s population is 801 according to the 2020 census; some of those residents are children or otherwise ineligible voters.

The Underwoods are associated with the Free State Project and have often been in touch with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

Jody Underwood noted that it was Edelblut who suggested to her the idea of using “micro-schools.” The state has signed contracts with micro-school companies to provide additional support to New Hampshire students. The debate over whether to use them as a school of first resort seems likely to continue.

Croydon residents who wanted to restore the $1.7 million budget proposed by the School Board started organizing before the March 12 meeting had adjourned.

“I started calling and texting people even within that meeting,” Leslie, who is an English teacher at Kearsarge Regional High School and the mother of two school-age children, said before Saturday’s meeting.

The high turnout was a requirement of the meeting. To meet the threshold of half the voters in town, 283 needed to attend Saturday’s meeting — half the 565 names on the voter checklist as of the March 12 vote.

In the interim, another 52 people had registered to vote by last Wednesday, when the supervisors of the checklist met. And 18 more registered Saturday morning, said Sue Gromis, chair of the supervisors of the checklist, bringing the voter rolls to 635.

But the turnout number remained the same at 283, and with 379 votes cast, the petition organizers had plenty to spare.

“I’ve never seen this many people in town in one spot before,” Daniel Roy, who has lived in Croydon for 15 years, said as votes were being cast.

Ian Underwood, former School Board member Jim Peschke and others had encouraged voters to stay home on Saturday, in an effort to deny the meeting a quorum.

That left Jody Underwood and Aaron McKeon as lonely figures among a tolerant but unreceptive audience. While Underwood didn’t speak at the meeting, she handed out paper copies of the slides McKeon presented during debate.

After the vote, Underwood stood surrounded by TV cameras, an opportunity to spread the micro-schooling idea far beyond Croydon.

“I think this was about the shock of things happening so quickly,” she told them.

McKeon offered a similar assessment.

“I think that part of the problem is that it originated with Ian,” he said in an interview.

On the other hand, he added, he likes the micro-schooling model and he said he wouldn’t have learned about it if Ian Underwood hadn’t called for the budget cut.

Even supporters of reinstating the budget acknowledged Saturday that there might be a use for micro-schooling in Croydon.

“I think in this community that has school choice that there may be a small place for a micro-school option for ninth to 12th grade, but not as the sole option,” Hope Damon, who helped organize the revote, said Saturday.

Tom Moore, who was on the School Board through March 12 and helped develop the $1.7 million budget, and Angi Beaulieu, a former School Board member who ushered in school choice in Croydon several years ago, presented the case for reinstating the original plan.

Beaulieu suggested that she plans to run for the School Board again.

In addition to calling for the two School Board members to step down, Leslie said the Stand Up group plans to keep attending meetings.

But on Saturday, many residents were pleased to be part of a political event that had nothing to do with parties or partisanship.

“Hopefully,” Daniel Roy said, “this sends a good message as to what direction we want the town to go in.”

“I think it’s a pretty amazing demonstration of how democracy can really work,” Frank Perotti, Croydon’s school superintendent said.

At previous meetings, Perotti had called the plan to replace Croydon’s education system with for-profit micro-schools “magical thinking.”

There was nothing particularly magical in Saturday’s vote, which organizers said was the product of old-fashioned political organizing, including knocking on doors and making phone calls.

Mason Jewhurst, 18, registered to vote Saturday morning and his “yes” vote was the first ballot he’d cast.

He’s a senior at Sunapee Middle High School and Saturday was the annual class trip. He was happy to skip it, he said, and cast a vote with his younger sisters, ages 12 and 14, in mind.

“I would rather have helped out my sisters in their school careers than pretended to have a good time,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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