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Lebanon School Board race is a battle over district’s direction

  • Lebanon school board candidates up for election on March 9, 2021, are top row from left: Renee DePalo, Joshua Flanders, Stephen Kantor, Lilian Maughan, Barbara Patterson and Lisa Vallejo Sorensen. Not pictured is candidate Jason Gillespie. (Courtesy photographs)

  • Renee DePalo (Courtesy photograph)

  • Joshua Flanders

  • Stephen Kantor (Courtesy photograph)

  • Lilian Maughan (Courtesy photograph)

  • Barbara Patterson (Courtesy photograph)

  • Lisa Vallejo Sorensen (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/27/2021 10:05:50 PM
Modified: 2/27/2021 10:12:37 PM

LEBANON — Candidates running to replace three outgoing members of the Lebanon School Board are divided over the district’s future priorities.

One group wants to see the city’s aging school buildings upgraded and a high value placed on new programs and services for Lebanon’s 1,600 students. Meanwhile, another trio say they wants to provide children with a quality education, but one that doesn’t come at the cost of overburdening lower-income and elderly households.

Overall, seven people are running to replace Wendy Hall, Tom Harkins and Mary Edes on the nine-member School Board. The top three vote-getters will earn three-year terms.

Some candidates say they hope to continue the work of those outgoing board members, who are part of a voting bloc that’s advocated for strengthening the school district’s educational offerings and modernizing classrooms and school buildings.

That group — Lil Maughan, Stephen Kantor and Lisa Vallejo Sorensen — characterize their platform as “pro-school,” saying they intend to advocate for “quality, innovative education” that responds to the needs of students, teachers and administrators alike.

Maughan, a freelance editor and president of the Lebanon Middle School PTO, says she hopes to “assure that Lebanon students have the best education our district can offer.”

That means seeking out and rewarding quality teaching, building on the school district’s academic and extracurricular programs, and upgrading technology, said Maughan, whose two sons attend Lebanon schools.

However, three other candidates — Barbara Patterson, Joshua Flanders and Renee DePalo — argue that the so-called “pro-school” platform simply means more of the same, prioritizing “wants” over “needs” and leaving taxpayers to make up the difference.

They point to the school portion of Lebanon’s tax rate, which increased by more than 10% over the five years leading up to 2020, when a citywide reassessment raised property values and resulted in lower rates.

“I know many people in our Lebanon community must make the decisions of whether to pay their household bills or put food on the table for their families,” said Patterson, who works at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and whose husband, Al Patterson, previously served on the School Board for six years and often voiced concern about school spending.

“It is my belief that some take having a lucrative job and a nice income for granted, forgetting about the less fortunate,” she said.

The school tax rate in 2020, including statewide, was $15.27, meaning the owner of a $250,000 home in Lebanon currently pays $3,818 in education taxes.

Building plans

Nowhere is the divide starker than their views of the school district’s modernization plans.

Since 2018, the School Board has unsuccessfully asked voters to approve long-term bonds to upgrade the entryways and instructional spaces at the Mount Lebanon, Hanover Street and Lebanon High schools.

Those packages, which have so far failed to hit the 60% threshold needed to pass at the polls, last totaled $20.4 million, and the high cost is largely why the School Board declined to put forward a similar proposal during the COVID-19 pandemic this year.

Kantor, a retired orthopedic surgeon with children in the middle and high school, said “there is no question that our schools need to be modernized.”

“If our kids are to be well-positioned to thrive in the workplace, become the next generation of thinkers, doers and leaders, then we need to equip them with the resources to train now,” he said, adding that can be done in part by building on the school district’s reserve funds and planning for longer-term projects than those initially pitched.

But Flanders, a 2007 Lebanon High School graduate who works in marketing for a local distribution company, said the schools aren’t as outdated as some people may feel.

“I do firmly believe it’s important to update schools when those updates are needed, but to prematurely call for drastic changes would be catastrophic to taxpayers who have already seen a hike in recent months,” said Flanders, who has a son attending school in Lebanon, while calling on the school district to meet with its municipal counterparts to craft long-term goals for the city as a whole.

School resource officer

The two camps also are divided over the fate of Lebanon school resource officer Greg Parthum. A group of activists recently called on the district to defund the position, saying that having a police officer in the schools is an unwarranted intrusion of the criminal justice system in an educational setting.

Vallejo Sorensen, communications director for the Upper Valley Aquatic Center, advocates for further studying the issue, the same position that the School Board currently holds.

“I have been following this issue and still have not gotten a clear idea about how this is best dealt with,” said Vallejo Sorensen, whose twins attend Lebanon schools. She added there are several questions she’d like answered before a final board decision.

“All of these questions would need to be more clearly answered for me to decide,” she said. “I am not at all opposed to a resource officer in a school if there is data to support their presence.”

Meanwhile, Depalo, who has a 9-year-old son attending Lebanon schools, said she’s fully in favor of the position staying.

As director of alternative sentencing for Grafton County, Depalo said, she works closely with school resource officers across the region.

“Their positions are thankless and they work in the best interest of our children,” she said. “They are not only there to assist the school in maintaining safety but also to educate our children about the law and potential consequences to their actions.”

Phone and email messages left for Jason Gillespie, who also is running for School Board, were not returned last week.

Budget

The School Board is proposing a $47.5 million budget for the 2021-22 school year, an increase of $1.7 million, or about 3.8%, over the district’s current spending plan.

School officials estimate the budget would add about 86 cents to the local school property tax rate, which amounts to an additional $215 for a property valued at $250,000.

The increase is primarily driven by salaries and benefits. The school district’s wages are set to increase by more than $500,000, while retirement costs will go up by nearly $800,000, according to the annual report. Meanwhile, the district expects to spend an additional $200,000 on special education and $368,000 on maintenance.

The average teacher’s salary in Lebanon this school year is $73,660, about $11,800 above the statewide average.

If the budget is defeated, a default spending plan of $46.6 million would take effect.

Noteworthy articles

Other articles on the ballot request voters allocate $800,000 to trust funds that support building renovations and special education costs. Money for the funds would come from budget surpluses, not additional taxes.

When and where

Voting on the Lebanon School District warrant and for city and school officers will take place between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 9, at the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon (Ward 1), the United Methodist Church (Ward 2) and City Hall (Ward 3).

Absentee ballots can be requested. More information on how to request a ballot is at https://lebanonnh.gov/564/Absentee-Ballots-Voting.

The Upper Valley Business Alliance is hosting an online candidates’ night at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 2. Information on the event and how to watch is at Lebanonnh.gov/civicalerts.aspx?AID=1618.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603 -727-3223.




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