BEDFORD — The school board expects such a large turnout at tomorrow’s meeting that officials moved the meeting space to the cafeteria of Peter Woodbury School rather than the usual boardroom in the school administrative building.
The anticipated crowd, however, may not get many more answers at the 7 p.m. meeting than when voters earlier this month rejected Article 3, a joint proposal to build a new high school and sign a 20-year tuition contract with Manchester to continue taking Bedford’s high school students in the meantime.
School board chairman Susan Thomas, who will vacate the chair tomorrow, said the board expects to formally accept a petition to hold a special election to reconsider the town’s contract with Manchester. But the board likely will not make any immediate decision on whether to hold the special election, she said.
The board’s attorney, Eugene Van Loan III, said the members will probably take the request for a special meeting under advisement until they can anticipate what legal action opposing political groups in town could take to counter whatever decision the board makes.
Van Loan said three questions have to be answered before the board can make an informed decision — whether the issue at the special meeting would be the same issue voters already decided on March 9, whether the vote would require a simple majority or a 60 percent margin and whether the meeting would require a 50 percent turnout of registered voters to reach a quorum.
“At this stage in the game, none of these things have really been determined,” Van Loan said.
The Bedford chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy collected more than 800 signatures on its petition for another election, according to its Internet site.
The state director of CSE, Chuck McGee, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Bedford now has a three-year contract with Manchester, which would require the town to pay $10.6 million over the next two years. The town has until May 30 to sign a 20-year contract and could spread the payments over nine years in an offer extended by Manchester officials.
Under the current contract, Bedford taxpayers will see a $4.64 increase in their tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property without some intervention, Thomas said.
Van Loan’s questions for the school board indicate several options open to the town if the board calls for another election. A vote that requires a 60-percent margin implies the town would be seeking bond money to pay for the $10.6 million contract, whereas a vote that requires a 50-percent quorum implies the board would be seeking to appropriate more money from the taxpayers, he said.
A simple majority vote could be to adopt the 20-year contract, but it is unclear whether that vote was already made on March 9.
In the rancorous political buildup to the March 9 vote, a pro-high school group at a November deliberative session passed an amendment to derail a ballot question, Article 4, which allowed voters to consider a 20-year contract with Manchester without approving a new high school.
Town Councilor William Greiner, who was chairman at the time, proposed the amendment at the deliberative session to make passage of Article 4 dependant upon passage of Article 3.
Greiner Friday said he did not want to comment until after tomorrow’s school board meeting.
“I told them in the deliberative session there would be a backlash,” said Roy Stewart, president of the Bedford Taxpayers Association. “The people should have a right to have a free-standing vote on a Bedford contract (with Manchester).”
As the board considers the special election, the political landscape in town is reshaping.
The board itself has a new member, David Sacks, and Thomas said another veteran member will likely take over her role as chairman.
“The school board has taken the flack for the ballot being changed at the deliberative session even though we opposed (the amendment). It in no way had the backing of the board,” Thomas said.
“I don’t think it helped. There was a contingent of people who voted no on everything. There were people who were upset that their choice had been taken away.”
While Thomas said her hopes were dashed on March 9 when voters rejected the high school proposal and an intermediate school proposal, she remained optimistic that support for the high school has grown.
“We still got 56 percent for a town that has always been against building a high school. We’re now in the majority,” she said.
The town council also has a new member, Lori Radke, and former chairman, Councilor Michael Scanlon, has resumed leadership.
Whereas Greiner played a central role as chairman in the town’s high school debate, Scanlon said he plans to stay out of school politics.
Keeping a distance
“I don’t know if you can tone down the politics in Bedford,” Scanlon said. “I just felt it wasn’t a good idea to be out there beating their drum.”
Scanlon said he is now council’s liaison to the school board but doesn’t plan to get involved unless the board asks.
“What a lot of people in town truly don’t understand is the school board and the council are completely separate entities,” he said.
Scanlon said the amendment made to the ballot at the November deliberative session soured the voters to the high school proposal.
“I think it got emotional. People felt they were misled. People felt their choices were taken away,” he said. “All these guys who came out and said, ‘vote no on everything.’ That was certainly a protest.”
“People have put personality and emotion ahead of what is best for the town. I don’t think you necessarily make the best decisions when you are looking at something emotionally over logically,” Scanlon said.
“The best thing an elected official can do is bring accurate and complete information to the voters. I have faith in the voters.”