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Rockport mulls citizen group to watch school board

Select Board continues discussion of school board, budget
By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 10, 2020
Rockport Select Board Chair Debra Hall during an online select board meeting Nov. 9.

Rockport — Rockport Select Board Chair Debra Hall discussed possibly identifying people in the community who could serve on a citizens group to provide accountability for the school board during the Nov. 9 select board meeting.

She spoke about this during the discussion that was listed on the agenda as: “Discuss Take-aways from Meeting with Rockport School Board Representatives.”

The select board met with school board representatives Oct. 26 and Hall asked several questions including how the school board decided to give a raise and bonus to Five Town CSD/MSAD 28 Superintendent Maria Libby.

Hall said during the Nov. 9 meeting, her impression from talking to the school board members was that it was difficult for them to “hold the line” on budget expenses when the constituents appearing before them at the school board meetings, including parents, are those who want more spent. She said references were made to a citizen group that used to attend school board meetings called “Value in Education.”

“I just wondered if we might want to encourage, this is not a select board thing, but we might want to encourage or identify some people who might have an interest in forming a citizens group,” Hall said during the Nov. 9 Select Board meeting.

She said she had talked about this with the Camden chairman of the board and Camden Town Manager Audra Caler.

She said it would be a citizen group that forms on its own and that she imagines it would operate the way the "Value in Education" group worked before.

“They attended school board meetings, they combed through the budget,” Hall said. “They were there so that the only people in the room were not the constituents asking for more money to be spent but also for people to hold the line.”

“It’s not something that we set up,” she said. She said in the future, maybe “somebody could identify some residents and encourage them to do something.”

Caler acknowledged Nov. 10 that Hall mentioned the idea to Camden Select Board Chair Robert Falciani and herself.

Caler said she would advise that school district governance is the prerogative of the school board. If a group of citizens wants to meet and form, that is absolutely their right, she said, but she would not recommend that come from the town formally.

Caler said she would compare this to the school board coming and talking to the select boards about her employment contract or that of Rockport Town Manager Bill Post. There is a separation of responsibilities between the school board and the towns, she said.

During the Rockport meeting, Select Board member Michelle Hannan said she thought it was great conversation with the school board, adding she would like to see them come to select board meetings more often to give a report.

“They will get used to coming and reporting out,” she said.

Select Board member Jeffrey Hamilton said he believed the information received from the school board members was excellent.

Hall said she was disappointed in the media reports, noting that she was quoted as asking the questions of the school board members which were given to her by the select board. She thought it was a nice conversation and questioned words used in the news story such as saying she “argued” a point.

Select Board member Mark Kelley said he had received a good comment and a bad comment about the meeting.

On the bad one, he said, “I was taken aback, surprised.”

He said a resident questioned how the board could even begin to question the school and how they give bonuses and raises and is it any of their business?

“They missed the $2 million mark,” he said.

School board members Sarah Bradley Prindiville, Marcia Dietrich and Brieanna Gutierrez attended the Oct. 26 Rockport Select Board meeting. Hall stated at the outset that some topics would not be discussed due to the fact the town has filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming Rockport made over-payments.

Hall, speaking for the select board, asked how the school board made the decision to give Libby a 3% raise and a $7,000 bonus and asked if this was a contractual requirement. The questions came from multiple members of the select board, as was also noted in the previous news article.

School board members answered it was not contractually required, but it was in recognition of Libby’s performance and her going above and beyond the call of duty. She received a positive evaluation from the school board, and she was putting in a great deal of extra work due to the middle school construction project.

Asked about this Rockport discussion, Libby said in previous comments:

"The public should know that we spend a significant amount of critical analysis, deliberation, and number crunching to develop the leanest budget we can while still maintaining a high quality education. Anyone who wants to be a part of the process is welcome to come to the many Finance Committee meetings and School Board meetings devoted to the budget. Although schools account for the majority of most towns' taxes, they also help drive the economic engine by bolstering property values and bringing young families into the community."

On Aug. 28, the town of Rockport filed a lawsuit against SAD 28 and the town of Camden seeking damages, interest and attorneys’ fees for multiple-year overpayments made by Rockport to the school district. The town believes the overpayments may go back to 2009.

The Rockport Select Board, in a statement on its lawsuit, said previously: “These overpayments reflect amounts that should have been paid by Camden taxpayers and were charged to Rockport taxpayers in error.”

Caler said the Town of Camden would have preferred that a lawsuit not be filed. She said they should now be heading in the direction to focus more on the insurance claim. All three parties can work together more collaboratively, she said.

Rockport town officials say they hope to work with Camden and the school district to resolve this dispute amicably, but argue “Rockport acted prudently to take the action it did, when it did, in order to fully protect the town’s rights and avoid any suggestion its claims were not brought in a timely fashion, which might have affected Rockport’s ability to recover the full amount owed to it.”

The town argues the school did not properly apply the state school funding formula and failed to take into consideration not only the number of students but the town valuations.

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