Lebanon deliberative session voters nix cuts to proposed school budget, punt SRO to board

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2021 9:58:31 PM
Modified: 1/30/2021 9:58:29 PM

LEBANON — Voters rejected two attempts to cut the proposed school budget and turned a petitioned article to get rid of the district’s school resource officer into a non-binding measure during the deliberative session of the Lebanon School District’s annual meeting Saturday morning.

Although residents could observe the meeting online, they had to be present to vote, and anywhere from 35 to 80 people were in attendance at different points in the meeting, which ran from 9 a.m. to nearly 12:30 p.m. If there was an overall sensibility in the public’s comments, it was that the budget of more than $47.5 million is more than the public can shoulder.

“We can’t be oblivious to what’s going on financially,” former Lebanon School Board member Al Patterson said. The pandemic has taken a toll on jobs and the economy, he said.

Lebanon’s proposed school budget is 3.95% higher than the current year’s, and the estimated increase to the tax rate would be 87 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That amounts to a tax increase of $218 on a home valued at $250,000.

Patterson moved to cut the budget by more than $870,000, effectively setting spending at the level of the default budget.

Residents requested a paper ballot, which meant the polls were open for 30 minutes. While between 35 and 40 residents, in addition to the School Board, were present at the start of debate on the article, the vote reflected an influx of residents who stopped by to vote on the proposed cut, which was rejected by a count of 57-24.

Lebanon residents will vote on the budget by Australian ballot on March 9. If the budget fails, the default budget allows the district to spend what it costs to maintain programs from the current year, but not implement new ones, so plans such as replacing several aging buses and renovating classrooms would be put on hold.

The main drivers of higher costs in the proposed budget are contributions to the New Hampshire Retirement System for the district’s staff, higher health insurance costs and higher pay, all of which the district is contractually obliged to pay, Superintendent Joanne Roberts pointed out during a presentation about the spending plan.

If the default budget were in place, the estimated tax increase would be around 47 cents per $1,000, and the owner of a $250,000 home would pay $100 less than under the proposed budget.

Voters also rejected, by a show of hands, a proposal to reduce the budget by $65,000, or roughly what the district spends to have a school resource officer. It costs around $120,000 to have Lebanon Police officer Greg Parthum spend time in Lebanon’s schools, with the expense shared equally between the school district and the city.

The debate over the article calling for discontinuing the school resource officer position was briefer but more heated than the debate on spending. A group of Lebanon residents brought forward the petitioned article because they contend that having a police officer in the schools is an unwarranted intrusion of the criminal justice system in an educational setting.

“This is not an attack on police,” said Asma Elhuni, a political activist who led the petition drive. “This is an attack on the fact that we are using police officers to discipline our children” instead of counselors.

Patterson, who is also a retired Hartford and Hanover police officer, moved to amend the article to make it advisory only and argued that the decision was best left in the hands of the School Board.

“We’re trying to be influenced by these things that are happening in Philadelphia and Detroit,” said Patterson. “Please, make it your decision,” he told the School Board.

But other residents argued that the city might be better off if the public makes the decision.

“It makes sense to defer to a larger group of voters,” said Luke Howard, who noted that the school resource officer is someone who is authorized to use force against children.

School Board Vice Chairman Jenica Nelan said she was concerned about having voters addressing an individual position in the district’s budget.

But resident Sarah Wraight said it was less a matter of personnel than of policy and principle. Students of color are likelier to be the target of disciplinary action from police, she said.

Ian Smith, principal at Lebanon High School, said that data Wraight presented about suspension rates “do not apply to the high school,” and that Parthum “does not play a role in the discipline of our students.”

Further, John D’Entremont, principal at Lebanon Middle School, said the school resource officer responds only when a school administrator asks him to.

The amendment making the article nonbinding passed by a show of hands and School Board members said they plan to consider what to do.

“When this issue came up during our budget discussions, we didn’t have an opportunity to discuss and fully understand” how the school resource officer functions in the schools, said Wendy Hall, chair of the Lebanon School Board. Hall, who is not running for reelection after serving for six years, said the vote on the article will have an influence.

“You can be assured that the board is going to take that information into consideration.”

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

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