BEDFORD — The political crossfire in town intensified in the last week leading up to Tuesday’s special election, the final opportunity for voters to decide whether Bedford should sign a 20-year high school tuition contract with Manchester.
The voting booths will be open at McKelvie Middle School from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The ballot has two questions — Article 1, whether to sign the 20-year contract to replace Bedford’s current three-year contract with Manchester, and Article 2, whether to reduce the school district budget by about $3.1 million if the long-term contract passes.
In the last week, town resident Gus Garceau presented the school board with a petition seeking another special election to be held in the fall as an alternative to this special election.
In a separate move, Bedford resident and attorney Mark Stull went before the town council claiming the current three-year contract was not approved by the voters and is therefore illegal. He asked the councilors to take the school board to court.
Garceau and Stull, who both support building Bedford’s own high school rather than signing a contract with Manchester, drew divisions in political ranks with their moves and were received coolly by members of the respective boards.
Also last week, the state Legislature approved an education funding bill that school officials said would reduce Bedford’s projected tax rate hike by about 35 cents per $1,000 of valued property — from a projected increase of $4.64 per value $1,000 to $4.29.
The projected tax rate increase was one of the top issues raised by residents at the deliberative session leading up to the election. Passing the 20-year contract would allow the town to spread its $10.6 million debt to Manchester for capital improvement to city schools over a 10-year period instead of over the life of the three-year contract. That would reduce the projected tax increase next year by another $1.65 per valued $1,000, school officials have said.
The week of politics ended in Hillsborough County Superior Court, where the two groups that authored the ballot articles argued whether the election requires a 50-percent turnout of the town’s registered voters to be valid.
Judge James J. Barry Jr. decided in favor of the school board, which penned Article 2, that the election does require a quorum of half the town’s voters, about 6,800 residents. The Bedford chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, the group behind Article 1, had argued only Article 2 should require a quorum and that Article 1 could be decided by however many voters attend.
If Bedford voters decide against the 20-year contract or not enough voters show up, the fate of the town’s public high school students is unclear. The 20-year contract offer expires on June 2. The current three-year contract with Manchester expires in 2006.
School Board Chairman Paul Brock said earlier this month that if the 20-year contract expires, the school board would likely negotiate another short-term contract with Manchester.
Garceau said under the terms of his proposal Bedford would not need to negotiate a new contract, because the town could open its own high school by 2006. That’s the year school officials had eyed in the past for breaking ground on a high school if approved by the voters.
“This clearly is a time issue,” he said.
The Garceau plan
Garceau proposed a five-part ballot article in his petition — to appropriate $32 million to build a high school, sign the 20-year contract with Manchester, raise $10.6 million in long-term bond funding (allowed under recent passage of Senate Bill 336) to pay the capital improvement debt to Manchester, rescind the $1.8 million deficit appropriation approved at the March election and reduce the school department budget by about $3.1 million.
School Board Member Daniel Sullivan attacked Garceau’s plan, saying he had no basis for the $32 million figure for the high school and that Manchester’s 20-year contract offer expires on June 2.
Garceau countered at the school board meeting Monday that the $32 million figure is a “place holder” until a high school planning committee comes back in late September with a more precise number.
School Board Member David Sacks, one of town’s leading advocates for Bedford’s own high school, said Garceau’s petition ran contrary to what the school board and high school planning committee were trying to do.
“I told him, don’t bring us a petition with invalid stuff,” Sacks said.
Garceau contended that his petition is legal, only that the 20-year contract portion would have to be removed.
“I identified that the $32 million will have to be amended at a deliberative session,” Garceau said. “There is nothing on the face here that is not legal or presentable.”
A second petition
By mid-week Garceau began circulating a second petition, similar to the one he presented to the school board minus the 20-year contract. The second petition also upped the “place holder” price tag for the high school to $35 million.
Sacks said the school board does not favor putting a high school question on a fall ballot. The board expects to hear a report from the high school planning board at the end of September about the plausibility of a proposed grades 7-to-12 school and for a price tag on a proposed grades 9-to-12 school.
The board expects to hear a report around the same time on Haig Yaghoobian’s proposed private Bedford Academy, Sacks said.
“Let’s get the correct facts,” he said. “Maybe we put Senate Bill 336 up in the fall, but I don’t think it will get 50 percent.”
Garceau’s proposal to bond the $10.6 million capital debt would also require a 60-percent approval vote in addition to a 50-percent quorum of registered voters.