School pact scuttled by low turnout

Bedford may have lost one option for educating its high school students in the coming years: a long-term agreement with neighboring Manchester.

Although Bedford voters last Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a 20-year tuition agreement with Manchester, not enough of them cast ballots for the special election to be valid. The turnout fell 1,849 votes shy of a required quorum of 50 percent of registered voters, or 6,800. Some 4,552 approved the contract, while 386 voted against it.

Manchester had set last Wednesday as the deadline to sign the contract. Manchester Mayor Bob Baines said in an interview Wednesday that “the extension is over,” although he noted that the decision is ultimately up to the full Manchester school board.

“It has been their inclination that this is the last extension,” said Baines, who is chairman of the school board. He said the discussion at the board’s next meeting “will probably focus on a transition” for Bedford to leave West High School after a short-term agreement between the city and the town expires in two years.

But the Bedford chapter of New Hampshire Citizens for a Sound Economy, which requested last week’s vote on the 20-year contract, plans to file an appeal regarding the legitimacy of the 50 percent quorum requirement in Hillsborough County Superior Court. Judge James J. Barry Jr. upheld the quorum requirement during an emergency hearing May 28, after the group filed a motion for clarification.

“Voters came out in droves, and they voted overwhelmingly in favor of the contract,” said Michele Corcoran, president of the Bedford chapter of the citizens group, a nonprofit organization that advocates for less government and lower taxes. “The contract is a fabulous deal for students and taxpayers. We will not be able to afford a new high school. . . . The time to fight is now.”

In New Hampshire, any special election involving an appropriation requires a 50 percent quorum.

The Bedford school board contends the contract is an appropriation because it would commit the town to millions of dollars in payments to Manchester for up to 20 years.

But Citizens for a Sound Economy says the warrant article directed the school board only to sign the contract, not to appropriate money.

An appropriation for tuition payments and other financial provisions of a short-term contract already occurred at annual meetings in March. Approval of the long-term agreement would have resulted in a lower tax rate. A second warrant article last week, added by the school board, asked for a reduction of the tax rate.

Paul Brock, chairman of the Bedford school board, said he was disappointed not enough voters showed up at the polls. The board endorsed a favorable vote last week because members viewed the contract as a good transition until the town can build its own high school. The 20-year contract provides exit points in years five, 10, and 15, while reducing the annual financial contribution the town would make to Manchester.

But Brock applauded groups in town who favor building a high school for not actively promoting a boycott of last week’s special election. Last fall, groups who oppose construction of a high school, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, campaigned for a boycott of a special election at the time, which included a proposal for a $30 million high school.

Yet Brock acknowledged that some voters who favor building a high school probably stayed home last Tuesday so that the special election would not count.

“I’m disappointed to the extent that some people chose not to vote, but that’s how some people chose to practice their democratic privilege,” Brock said.

He said that the board will continue its resolve to build a high school in town, and that a project could be presented to voters by next March. Various committees are looking at different grade configurations for a high school and are talking about the possibility of a private high school, which some residents prefer.

Roy Stewart, president of the Bedford Taxpayers Association, said the failure of the contract to pass last week could cause a backlash when another school project is presented to voters.

“I think people who voted ‘yes’ and didn’t get a tax cut will be very angry, and the high school will be in trouble,” said Stewart, who viewed approval of the 20-year contract as a necessary first step in building a high school.

Terry Wolf, president of Taxpayers for a Quality Education, which supports a high school in town, said she thinks the failure to achieve a quorum at last week’s special election shows that residents do not think the contract is the right long-term solution for the town. She also added that the high percentage who voted in favor of the contract should not necessarily be interpreted as exclusive support for a contract.

“I believe many people who voted ‘yes’ were supporting the school board’s recommendation that this was the first step” toward a high school, she said. “I hope people take a step back and give a little thought to some of the plans out there.”
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.