The Exeter Effect
Imagine an election process that would allow Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts to vote on our representatives for NH Senate or Congress. How would you feel about that? We are all US citizens and live near one another, and what one State does may affect the citizens in neighboring states, so why shouldn’t they get a voice in who represents NH? Sound nonsensical? Well, it’s exactly what happens in our Cooperative School Board elections.
Last Tuesday evening, as we watched the school board election results we were excited that the races were very close. Many of PACT’s endorsed elementary candidates had won their seats and before the very last town to report their results, Jenn Marr and Joseph Cahill were within 20 and 140 votes of the incumbents Bob Hall and Kim Meyer. For us, this signified five reporting towns in our district wanted change.
However, once the Exeter polls closed, the margins swelled to 1000 or more votes between the candidates. Not only for PACT endorsed candidates, but across every race. Prior to Exeter results, the incumbent from Brentwood, Melissa Litchfield was separated from challenger Scott Dennehy by only three votes. The final outcome yielded a margin of 1047 between the two. What deserves some discussion is Litchfield won the town of Brentwood. The question becomes, is the “Exeter Effect” fair to the other towns in the Cooperative School District?
The Cooperative School Board has representation for each town commensurate with their population. According to the NH Employment Security (www.nhes.nh.gov) the 2019 population in the six towns of our SAU :
East Kingston elected Ted Lloyd as their Cooperative School Board representative, however their voice was drowned out by the number of ballots cast in the other towns. Pat Gillis also soundly won the town of Stratham, only to have lost his bid for election to the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) after the town of Exeter overwhelmingly supported challenger Heidi Hansen.
Is it fair for the town of Exeter to not only have 33% of the Cooperative Board members from their town, but also be able to choose ALL of the seats for every town as well strictly because they have the highest number of voters? It doesn’t seem very cooperative at all.
We realize there is a House Bill proposing that all Cooperative School Districts in NH be dissolved. We are not supporting that argument. Our Cooperative School District can offer all students enriched offerings and resources that smaller towns would never be able to offer with a stand-alone school. However, having representation from each town is important to maintain engagement. HB1646 proposes to do just that. As we elect our state representatives, this house bill proposes each town within a cooperative school district to also elect their school board representative.
HB 1646 has been passed unanimously 19-0 via a bipartisan committee. The bill was introduced by State Representative Melissa Litchfield of Brentwood. Litchfield spent six years as a member of the Cooperative Regional School Board, as well as Chair of the Swasey School Board. This experience provides her intricate knowledge of how the school board operates and how voices from the smaller towns are considered.
Opponents to the change in the manner in which Cooperative School Board members are elected argue that the School Board makes decisions that affect all of our students, and spend tax payer money raised by the citizens of all six towns. They argue that it would be unfair to allow each individual town to elect their own representative, as it would dilute the voice of the Exeter voters. This belies the point that the Board makeup already gives Exeter more of a say in how the Cooperative District is run by virtue of Exeter having three times the representation of four of the other towns based solely on population. If each Board member is truly supposed to represent the voters at large, rather than by town, then why have seats designated by town at all? Why not just have members at large?
Many questions have been raised either in support or in defense of this bill. The loudest voices of oppositions for HB1646 are from the town of Exeter, most of whom are aligned with the Exeter Democrats whose influence determined the outcome of the most recent town elections. Over 40% of the cooperative regional district constituents are unhappy with the status quo. Do these voices matter? We shall see.