Published DateMEREDITH — In the choice between Chris Mega and Mark Billings, Inter-Lakes voters will have their pick of men who each brings a wealth of experience, both professionally and in local activism, to a Meredith seat on the school board. Both candidates declare passionate support for a high quality of public education. Both would like to take advantage of emergent technologies to transform the learning process. And both agree that, due to fixed structural costs and other factors out of the control of the school board, it's unrealistic to expect a near-term reduction in the school-related portion of tax bills even though enrollment has experienced a slow decline.
They take differing views, though, when it comes to a recently-passed warrant article that allows the district to retain unspent funds to ameliorate spiking tax rates in subsequent years, they also disagree on whether a state program that provides scholarships for parents to send their children to private schools is a good thing for education in New Hampshire.
Mega and Billings are running for a three-year term on the board. Voters in this town as well as Center Harbor and Sandwich will choose between the two on Tuesday. The seat has been held for the past three terms by Jack Carty, who is not running for a fourth consecutive term.
Mega brings professional experience in both information technology and finance. However, many voters might know him better as a musician; he served as chairman of the board of the Lakes Region Symphony Orchestra for seven years. He has also volunteered in the schools, such as with the "Weedbusters" team of seventh graders who last year participated in a national science challenge.
Billings also worked in finance, as an analyst and economist. He is currently treasurer for the town of Meredith, is a member of the town's Conservation Commission and serves on the school district's Strategic Planning Committee.
The two candidates fell on opposing sides of the question of a divisive warrant article. The article, passed at the district meeting on Wednesday, asked voters to permit the district to set aside funds left unspent at the end of the school year. The funds could be held in case of an unforeseen emergency, or applied as revenue in a future year so as to offset a steep tax rise. The measure passed, though the vote was close enough that moderator Lee Quimby had to ask voters twice to raise their hands for either yea or nay before he was comfortable in declaring a majority in favor.
"I voted affirmatively for that," said Mega. "I believe it's just a financial tool. I think, at the end of the day, it's almost irrelevant if we roll over funds or raise them again the next year."
Billings voted in the minority, troubled by what he termed a "question of misinformation." At a public budget hearing, held last month, he said he was told that a recently-enacted state law limited the amount which could be retained at 2.5-percent of that year's net assessment. This year, that amount would be just shy of $500,000. He said he was told at the public hearing that the fund could accumulate, year over year, to as much as 10 percent of a given year's assessment. At the district meeting, though, district attorney Barbara Loughman insisted that the fund could grow no larger than 2.5-percent of the assessment.
Billings was concerned about that contradiction. He also noted that the district currently has expendable trust funds for emergencies, be they facility failures or sudden educational needs. With the new fund, those rainy-day funds become redundant in his mind, and he would like to see those rolled into the reserve. While he wasn't philosophically opposed to the concept of the reserve fund, he said, "I think there was too much misinformation up there... It's not something we have to do right now."
Billings does not, however, have misgivings about the state law that leverages payments made in lieu of business taxes to provide scholarships for lower-income parents who wish to send their children to a private school. "The education tax credit program, to me personally and philosophically, is about one thing: parental choice." If the district truly values a parent's role in education, Billings said, then it followed for him that the parents should be empowered to find the school that best suited a child's needs.
Asked whether he thought the program could be seen as a threat to the well-being of public schools, he answered, "Not at all."
Mega disagrees, though, and has said so at recent candidates' forums. "In order for that to happen, funds will be diverted from public education." By his estimate, most families would receive a scholarship of around $2,500 to be applied toward tuition at a private school, and he questioned whether that would be enough help to make the choice possible for the families it's designed to help. "A private school is going to cost well more than $2,500," he said, and that's before considering ancillary costs, such as travel.
If he's wrong, and many students begin to leave the district, Mega said, the quality of the public school they leave behind will suffer. The size of the teaching staff will be reduced, leading to limited curriculum options. Sports teams may struggle with fewer athletes, he also gave as a possible outcome.
In general, Mega said he rejects the sentiment that the private sector can provide better education than the public. "I'm still a believer that public education for most is still the way to go." Pushing for greater privatization, he said, would be detrimental for local education. "The long-term effects are going to be devastating... A strong public education system is crucial to a vibrant and rich community."
Making a final case for his candidacy, Billings said he'd bring a balance to the Inter-Lakes board. "Retired teachers and current teachers dominate the board," he said. Mega is not an employee of the district, Billings said, "but he's married to one."
Billings said his opponent is a "good man" and "a man of integrity," and praised Mega's wife Diane, a math and computer science teacher at Inter-Lakes High School, as "one of the best teachers in our school system." Referring to Mega's pledge to recuse himself from matters that could directly affect his wife, Billings said he could vote on all board business.
"Where is Meredith's representative if someone is recusing himself? We pay 73.5 percent of the bill, don't we deserve representation?"
On a website he set up for his school board campaign, Mega discloses his spousal relationship and speaks to the question of conflict of interest.
On his website, Mega states, "There are some who think this is a conflict of interest. I, and the New Hampshire Senate, do not. While it's true if I were to be on the salary negotiating committee there could be a problem, but the reality is we are just one year into a 3-year contract. Negotiations won't happen for two more years, at which point I will recuse myself from that situation. Conflict can arise at any time, with any board, in any situation. Boards have conflict-of-interest policies which a) recognize conflict could arise at any time on any topic, and b) allows boards to function effectively in all situations."
He also refers to a NH Senate bill that would have prohibited family members of a district employee from serving on that district's board. The bill was unanimously killed in committee earlier this year.
Extrapolating on the subject, Mega said in a phone interview that two recent board members, Carty as well as Dan Cunningham, were married to teachers. "The board operated just fine. I don't see any issue there."