The school board plans to hold a special election so that voters can approve a 20-year high school tuition contract with Manchester and reduce this year’s tax rate by roughly $1.64 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation.
The election was originally scheduled for May 27, but school district Superintendent Ann Remus has since said that date is tentative and could change.
The board decided to go ahead with the special election last Thursday during a non-public meeting with school district attorney Eugene Van Loan, who told the board that a petition calling for a special election and signed by roughly 1,000 residents was legal, said board Chairman Paul Brock.
“I think I speak for the entire school board when I say we are disappointed about the perceived need to have a special election, but (the petition) is legal, so therefore, we will proceed,” Brock told a crowd of residents at the school district administrative building during the public portion of Thursday’s meeting.
Michelle Corcoran, president of the Bedford Citizens for a Sound Economy, presented the petition at a March 22 board meeting. It calls for the board to sign the 20-year tuition contract, and it also requires the board to win voter approval before opting out of the contract once it has been signed.
The board plans to put a second article on the special election ballot that would lower this year’s tax rate by reducing the school district operating budget by about $3.2 million, which is the amount of money that the district will no longer need to raise if the 20-year contract passes. This second article will be contingent upon the contract passing, Brock said.
50 percent required
Brock said that 50 percent of the town’s registered voters must cast a ballot in order for the special election to be valid. Joleen Worden, a member of the Bedford Taxpayers Association and the High School Planning Committee, criticized the board’s decision, saying that it “reinforced the (school board’s) lack of credibility” among residents.
However, board members said that their decision was based on Van Loan’s interpretation of state law, and not on any political agenda. “There’s case law that suggests that there is a 50 percent requirement,” said board member Sue Thomas.
According to state law, any article that “appropriates money” requires a 50 percent turnout to pass when it appears on the ballot at a special election, Brock said.
“The tuition contract clearly intends to appropriate future money,” he said. Specifically, it would obligate future boards to spend many millions of dollars on high school tuition and capital costs.
Worden, who was critical of the board’s decision to support the 50 percent turnout criteria, said the board should go to court and ask the judge to approve an “emergency” election to avoid the 50 percent turnout requirement.
Worden referred to the emergency special election that took place on Aug. 27, 2002, when voters rejected a proposal to purchase the so-called Flatley land on the corner of Route 101 and Route 114.
In that case, a judge agreed that the special election was “an emergency” because developer Thomas Flatley had set a deadline for the board to agree to buy the land.
“If one deadline was an emergency, then this one should be also,” said Worden, referring to Manchester’s deadline for signing the 20-year contract.
However, the difference between this special election and the 2002 special election is that in 2002 the Flatley proposal did not come before the board until after the regular March election, whereas this time around, the special election was anticipated before the regular election on March 9, Thomas said.
“Half of the election literature was about a special election,” she said.
“Frankly, if you just want to look at common sense, this does not constitute an emergency,” said board Vice Chairman Dan Sullivan.
Although a special election in November 2003 was declared invalid because fewer than 6,420 voters cast a ballot, Brock suggested that the turnout at the upcoming special election might surpass that threshold.
“Sixty percent (of the town’s registered voters) just turned out two weeks ago,” he said.
In a letter to the editor in the March 25 issue of the Bedford Journal, resident Charles Beck advocated boycotting a special election. “Boycott the election to ensure that the majority of registered voters required is not achieved and the petition is defeated,” he wrote.
And on March 13, Mark Stull, a leader of the Taxpayers for a Quality Education and a member of last year’s high school planning committee, wrote in an e-mail to Bedford Taxpayers Association president Roy Stewart, “If the school board even schedules a special election, we will either block it (we know how to do it), boycott it, or simply have our 4,500 votes show up at the polls and defeat the contract.”
However, Matt Readman, a director of the Bedford High Coalition, did not share the boycott strategy. “I’d never advocate a boycott. It’s people’s individual choice,” he said.
Readman seemed to support the board’s decision to hold the election. “They did what they had to do,” he said.
Early last week, the school board also received a petition from resident Gus Garceau. The petition calls for a special election to approve a plan to sign the 20-year tuition contract, build a $30 million high school, and save tax dollars over the short-term by issuing a bond to pay $10.6 million owed to Manchester in capital costs.
On Thursday, however, the board chose not to accept Garceau’s petition after Van Loan told the board that the proposed article would be illegal, Brock said.
State law says that a school district cannot hold two special elections in the same fiscal year to consider the same subject.
Since the special election in November asked the voters to approve a $30 million high school, holding another special election containing a $30 million high school proposal would violate that law, Brock said.
Garceau withdrew his petition at Thursday’s meeting, and said that he supports a yes vote on the tuition contract at the special election.
He also suggested that he might bring his proposal forward again in the future. “When I receive my petition back, it will not disappear,” he said.
Brock said that both articles on the special election ballot will require a simple majority to pass. The deliberative session was tentatively scheduled for Thursday, April 22, but that, too, is subject to change.
Meanwhile, the Manchester school district has denied a request by the Bedford School Board to extend the deadline for signing the contract. The board asked Manchester to move the deadline from May 30 to Oct. 31, but Manchester officials only agreed to extend the deadline by three days, to June 2, Brock said.
School district officials predict that if Bedford does not sign the contract by June 2, this year’s tax rate will be $4.64 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, which is more than four times the size of the town’s largest annual tax rate increase since 1988.
If the contract is signed and the budget reduction is approved, however, this year’s tax rate increase will be closer to $3 per thousand.