Bedford school board denies voters a choice

School board denies voters a choice

To the Editor:

If you have been wondering why your Bedford property tax bills have exploded in the last decade, read on.

In 2001-02 the school district budget was less than $29 million. This year, the board is proposing an eye-popping $65 million, while a budget that had only increased in line with combined inflation and enrollment growth since ’01-’02 would have been in the range of $46 million.

When the SB2 ballot voting law replaced town meetings in the mid-90’s, a key element of the process was that voters would be presented each year with a choice on the budget warrant article, of either the board’s recommended budget or a default budget which would usually be lower. Voting for lower budgets would start to bend the cost curve appropriately, as future enrollments are expected to decline.

The default budget is definitively not, as some have suggested, a “bare bones” spending plan. Instead it is defined mathematically by law (RSA 40:13 IX(b)) as follows: Take the previous year’s budget, add in any contractual obligations such as previously approved teaching or transportation agreements, and then, importantly, subtract prior year “one-time expenditures” for major infrastructure projects, such as we have all seen going on at McKelvie this summer.

School boards, though, hate having a large gap between the amount of their budget and the default, because it offers voters a temptation to interrupt the steady upward march of tax rates. From the formula above, it’s not difficult to see how a board can prevent that gap from occurring. They just avoid calling anything a “one time expenditure” and, hey presto, nothing is subtracted, the default budget is higher, the gap shrinks drastically, and voters lose the choice of lower taxation.

“Our board wouldn’t try something so under-handed,” you may be thinking. “After all, we have a state representative and a member of the state board of education on our local board. They should know better.”

Think again. The district capital improvement plan, surely synonymous with one time expenditure, shows $1.18 million for 2014-15. Even the maintenance director’s budget summary, under the heading “One Time Expenditures” splits out these costs. But, at the time of writing, not one single dollar of CIP spending, for parking lots, fiber optic cables, major HVAC equipment and the like, has been subtracted from the default budget in any of the last three years. Zero.

For taxpayers looking for lower rates, the board, by ignoring the plain meaning of the law and manipulating the default, has carefully constructed a “heads we win, tails you lose” scenario.

If you think that our local officials should play by the rules, contact the board members (their phone numbers and emails are on the district web site: sau25.net) and tell them to act in good faith to provide you with the budget choice to which the law entitles you.

Richard Evans

Bedford

Evans is a 12-year Bedford resident, a former Londonderry school board member, and a winner of the “Better Government for New Hampshire” award presented by the Josiah Bartlett Center. He can be contacted at bedfordpetition@comcast.net.