By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff
Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2014 8:00 am
SWANZEY CENTER — It has been a long, and at times tumultuous decade for the Monadnock Regional School District.
And a local group of more than 100 parents and community members called Monadnock United hopes to end it.
The effort made its public debut last week at a Monadnock Regional School Board meeting which more than 300 people attended.
While many at the June 17 meeting aired what they say is wrong or had gone wrong in the district over the past year, they also voiced support for a resolution Monadnock United members had drafted for positive change in the district.
Change, they say, is due.
Highlights of Monadnock’s troubles over the past decade have included a scuffle over the teacher’s contract in 2008, at times epic budget battles beginning as far back as 2003, the closure of two elementary schools followed by the withdrawal of those schools’ towns, Sullivan and Surry, from the district, and a proposal for a new high school that just couldn’t get the needed public support.
There was the dissolution of School Administrative Unit No. 38 in 2010 when the Hinsdale, Monadnock, Surry and Winchester school districts parted ways, threats by almost all of Monadnock’s member towns to withdraw from the school district, and lawsuits, the most recent of which involves the town of Troy suing the district over the legality of how a new school funding formula was approved last year.
In the meantime, the school board has been the focus of on and off bickering and distrust between members over the years.
The board’s June 17 meeting was the most recent example, and one that also revealed how divided the 12-member board has become in recent months, essentially split down the middle. The board’s 13th seat, which belongs to Roxbury, is vacant.
Besides Roxbury, Monadnock covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Swanzey and Troy.
While there have been some bright spots along the way, including the high school being named a top school in the state by U.S. News and World Report, improved test scores, decreasing dropout rates, championship sports teams, renovations to the middle/high school and the offering of college courses in partnership with River Valley Community College, they’ve been overshadowed by the dysfunction and negativity that continues at Monadnock.
“I think maybe we just air our laundry a little bit more than some other people do. We don’t sweep things under the rug like some other people do. We get it out there,” school board Vice Chairman James I. Carnie of Richmond said Friday.
When questioned by an audience member at the June 17 meeting, school board Chairman Richard H. Thackston 3rd wasn’t shy about admitting the school district had a public relations problem.
“We don’t hide much, which is maybe unfortunate,” he said during a phone interview Friday. “You have these people pitted one against the other and are so in a very public way because the Monadnock school district is very committed to having public meetings.”
Why are they pitted one against the other? It goes back to how state education funding is structured to rely exclusively on property taxes, Thackston said.
“The fundamental, underlying problem in our school district is a microcosm of the state of New Hampshire,” he said.
The nature of education funding the state is to “Balkanize,” he said, which essentially means divide and conquer. Rather than communities in a cooperative school district working together for the same goal, they become divided over costs and how much each has to spend to fund the district, he said.
The results can be situations where some towns feel they are paying more than their fair share, and others who are viewed as not paying enough, based on Monadnock’s history.
So how do you break a cycle of negativity when calls for change have been made before but not succeeded?
Members of Monadnock United say they’re committed to finding the answer, and then seeing it through.
“Diligence is key,” Michelle M. Colbert, a member of the group from Swanzey, said Thursday.
The group, a grass roots effort, began last year with a Facebook page. It has operated under the radar of school officials until recently.
At the June 17 school board meeting, the group presented a resolution focused on supporting transparency and community collaboration in the school district’s operations. Group members said the resolution was the first step in making positive change in the school district.
The board voted unanimously to send the resolution to the education and policy committee for review, saying it was the best way to handle it.
The next step for members of Monadnock United is to the attend the school board’s education and policy committee meeting in July, Colbert said. At that meeting, the resolution is scheduled to be discussed, she said.
Collaboration among the group will be extremely important going forward, and group membership is large enough so people can divide the workload, she said.
“We have to hold ourselves accountable to do our part, if we are to expect the same from the board. Nothing negative can come of it,” she said.
Monadnock United members plan to continue attending school board meetings, and will start regularly going to board committee meetings, she said.
The group is also looking to the school district’s annual meeting in March 2014 where two seats from Swanzey, and one seat each from Fitzwilliam, Troy and Roxbury, will be up for election, she said.
At least one member of Monadnock United is seriously considering running for a seat on the board, as the board could use more pro-education advocates, Colbert said.
“We have made more connections in the community, and people are excited about positive change,” she said.