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BEDFORD — The school board decided last night to accept one of two citizens’ petitions to hold a special election under legal advice that 50 percent of the voters must turn out for the election to be valid.
The decision came just 16 days after Bedford’s last election, at which voters rejected a joint proposal for the town’s own high school and a 20-year contract with Manchester schools.
With roughly 13,000 registered voters, about 6,500 would have to come out for the election. About 7,800 voted March 9, when the high school and 20-year contract were rejected.
School Board Chairman Paul Brock announced the decision after an hour-long closed-door meeting with the board’s attorney, Eugene Van Loan III, to accept a petition by the Bedford chapter of the Citizens for a Sound Economy and reject a petition by resident Gus Garceau.
The petition submitted by CSE, with 1,000 signatures, requested an article to decide whether Bedford should replace its three-year contract with Manchester with a 20-year contract to continue sending the town’s students to Manchester West High School.
The board added its own article to the proposed election ballot. If CSE’s article passes a majority vote, voters will be asked to decide whether to reduce the school budget to spread Bedford’s outlay to Manchester over a longer term, Brock said.
“We have been advised by our counsel that the article does require a 50 percent quorum to be legal,” Brock said. After the meeting adjourned, he added, “Given the emotion surrounding this issue, I would be reluctant to make a decision without 50 percent.”
The board rejected Garceau’s petition, calling for a repeat vote on what Garceau called “essentially” Article 3, the joint proposal for the March 9 election for a new high school and a 20-year contract with Manchester.
Brock said Van Loan told the board that Garceau’s requested article was “sufficiently the same” as the issue voters addressed at a special election last November.
“It is prohibited to have two special elections on the same issue in a fiscal year,” Brock said.
Garceau told the board after it rejected his petition that he was aware when he submitted it that it might not be legal. He formally withdrew his petition with a notice he may submit it again at a later date.
The school board will be working under a May 30 deadline with Manchester to renew its contract or continue under the remainder of a three-year contract, which requires the Bedford residents to pay $10.6 million for repairs to Manchester schools plus tuition over the three years.
The tax rate will rise $4.64 per $1,000 of valued property without a remedy, school officials have said.
To meet the May 30 deadline, the board decided to hold a deliberative session to present the proposed articles to the voters on April 22 at McKelvie School, followed by a May 27 session to decide on the ballot questions.
“We are disappointed by the perceived need for a special election, but that notwithstanding, we will proceed,” he said. “We believe a continuation with Manchester is not a solution in and of itself.”
The board also discussed a formal study of a proposed private Bedford academy, which voters approved on Article 15 of the March 9 election.
Members differed on whether public school administrators should participate in the study, but postponed decision on a study committee until the next school board meeting on April 12.