Voters in Bedford, N.H., will head to the polls again next month to consider a 20-year high school tuition agreement with neighboring Manchester, but the school board vowed last week that even if the contract is approved, they will not give up their resolve to build a high school in town.
The school board reluctantly approved a citizens petition last Thursday night to hold a special school district meeting on the contract, which failed to gain approval at the annual school district meeting last month. The board met with the school district’s attorney in a closed-door session for nearly an hour to review the petition, which was submitted by the Bedford chapter of New Hampshire Citizens for a Sound Economy, and a second petition by another resident, before returning to public session to announce their decisions.
”We’re disappointed about a perceived need for a special election, but it’s legal and we will proceed,” school board chairman Paul Brock told approximately 50 residents who attended the meeting. He later added, ”The Manchester contract is not a [long-term] solution for this town.”
The board rejected the other petition, which was submitted by resident Gus Garceau and essentially sought approval of a high school construction project and the tution contract as a combined article. State law only permits one special meeting to be held during the course of a fiscal year on a warrant article, and the district already convened a special meeting last November on an article that contained both the high school and tuition agreement. Although three-quarters of voters approved the warrant article, the turnout fell 909 votes shy of meeting a state-imposed quorum of 50 percent of a town’s registered voters, or 6,420 in Bedford.
The special meeting, which would be held at the McKelvie Middle School on a date yet to be selected, will have to meet that stiff quorum requirement as well, much to the dissatisfaction of voters who support the tuition agreement. Some of those voters fault the board for not holding an emergency meeting instead, which has no quorum requirement. ”Voters just don’t come out to special meetings,” said Roy Stewart, president of the Bedford Taxpayers Association, who believes passing the agreement is the necessary first step in approving a high school construction project. (The agreement includes termination clauses in case Bedford decides to build a high school.)
But the board, based on the advice from its counsel, Eugene Van Loan, said approving the 20-year contract does not constitute an emergency. Board members concluded that voters who headed to the polls at last month’s annual meeting knew that Manchester had imposed a May 30 deadline for passage of the contract. It has since been extended to June 2.
Representatives for the Bedford Chapter of New Hampshire Citizens for a Sound Economy, which is a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates less government, less taxes and more freedom, did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment for this story. The local chapter of the group has a policy of not talking with the press.
Garceau said he fully anticipated that his petition would be ruled illegal. He formally withdrew the petition Thursday night with the intent of possibly resubmiting it sometime in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
”It was a statement” telling the town it needs a high school, said Garceau, a self-employed engineer who assisted the district in 1986 with an ill-fated high school construction plan. ”I once thought our son would go to a Bedford high school. He’s now 26. He graduated from Bentley three years ago.”
The issue of finding a permanent home for the town’s high school-age students has splintered the town for more than two years, creating an atmosphere of distrust among the various factions in the debate. Since March 2002, voters have repeatedly rejected proposals to build a high school and to sign a 20-year tuition agreement with Manchester. They also turned down a deal in 2002 by a Massachusetts developer to buy 39 acres of land for a school.
The contract with Manchester expired last year, and now the district is continuing its arrangement with a short-term 3-year contract, which keeps per-student tuition rates at $6,700, but includes capital improvement payments of $3.53 million annually.
If voters approve the 20-year agreement, which does not include the capital improvement payments but does include eventual increases in tuition, taxpayers would realize a reduction in their anticipated tax rate for the next fiscal year of $1.65 per $1,000 of assessed value. (The school board has added a second article to the warrant of the special meeting so the new rate would go into effect.)
In the meantime, the school board, which has been the target of verbal attacks by some high school construction detractors, is trying to restore trust in the community.
”We are trying to do the best we can,” said Sue Thomas, a school board member who recently relinquished her duties as chairwoman after the annual elections. ”I’m one of the key people [whom] people have decided not to trust. . . . I hear rumors you lied to us. I don’t lie. . . . No one in my family lies. It’s a mortal sin.”
But Stewart believes the board could have more easily restored its credibility had members at least tried to hold an emergency meeting for the contract approval, even if the board believes such a meeting is not legal. Holding an emergency meeting requires permission from a superior court.
”They are not working for the taxpayers,” he said. ”They are working for the high school.”
David Grimes, a director of the Bedford High School Coalition, which is pushing for the construction of a school, said the town will continue to have a ”charged” atmosphere in the next few weeks leading up to the special meeting.
”There’s no way on God’s green earth I would vote ‘yes,’ ” on the contract, said Grimes, pointing out his group has not taken a formal position yet on the upcoming special meeting. ”It’s a terribly one-sided contract.”
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.