SANDOWN – School Administrative Unit (SAU) 55 superintendent Earl Metzler met with the board of selectmen Monday, April 14, for an informal sit down about the Timberlane Regional School District. Metzler set up the meeting in an effort to get feedback from residents on the district and to ask and answer questions, and while a couple members of the public were in attendance, questions were primarily asked by selectmen.
Though scheduled for a discussion at 7:30 p.m., a related agenda item had Metzler at the table before then. Timberlane budget committee member Cathy Gorman brought concerns to the board about what she sees as a lack of information forthcoming from the district through Right to Know requests.
Gorman has sent a number of such requests to the district but thinks the information she has received is incomplete to do her job as a budget committee member representing Sandown. She noted that a new cost of 50 cents per sheet has been implemented at the district and suggested that as the year goes on, she could alert the selectmen to requests she thinks are needed to potentially get the town to cover that expense.
Gorman was hopeful that the culture around the budget process would improve this year and wanted to update the selectmen on a case by case basis.
While chair Hans Nicolaisen said he feels bad that Gorman had to pay out of her own pocket for information she considers necessary to fulfill her role as an elected official, selectman Steve Brown was less sure that what Gorman wanted was necessary to the role.
Brown was against the town paying for the Right to Know requests. He said he had spent many years on the budget committee when the information needed was available and was dubious that the culture had changed. “I don’t believe it has changed when seven members (of the committee) are happy (with the information made available). I have to wonder where the problem is, and for that reason I hope we’re not going to pay out of tax dollars for those requests,” said Brown.
Metzler was asked to come to the table on Brown’s requests to hear the other side of the story. Metzler said the district was following the law in what material it was providing but that some of the materials requested were not in existence and required many hours to compile. And while some new documents had been created, there was a point when it was no longer feasible or cost effective to send out information in new ways, he said.
The Right to Know Law in New Hampshire stipulates that a government body does not have to compile information into a record that does not already exist.
Metzler said the information was being presented but that it could be confusing. He said he has made himself available to review the numbers with those who seek more information. Metzler also noted the budget committee majority has decided that some of the information being requested by committee members is not necessary.
Gorman said she would let go of her current requests for more information on the new full-time kindergarten program coming this fall, but the information she was getting did not add up.
Metzler stayed on to answer questions from the public and board after the discussion with Gorman.
He said he was looking to reach out to Sandown because there was a strong message that the taxpayers were unhappy with the cost of the school. He spoke about the default budget the district will be operating under and how efforts are being made to provide a high level of education within that reduced number.
Selectman Jim Devine said he was looking for information on the correlation between population at the school and the cost of a student’s education. Metzler replied that the district was looking at staffing reductions in the coming year but that Timberlane’s per-pupil cost was lower than the state average. This work to keep costs low, he explained, is complicated by directives from the school board that they want their district to be number one in the state.
Nicolaisen asked about how much influence the superintendent has over the school board and budget committee, and Metzler responded that it was a delicate balance.
Selectman Cynthia Buco asked about how decisions are made to implement new programs. Metzler did not give a general answer but described the full-time kindergarten program and why Spanish would be offered to those students. The new program is voluntary and tuition-based.
One question from the public came from Cathy Piemonte, related to the policy on what school board members are allowed to ask for, referencing a recent blog post by school board member Donna Green of Sandown on her efforts to secure a textbook for review. Metzler said school board policy was that all requests for such information go through the chair.