In Croydon, school budget cuts prompt a reckoning on the role of local government
At the heart of Croydon, next to the town hall and a church, sits a 242-year-old brick schoolhouse. Affectionately nicknamed “Little Red,” the Croydon Village School currently serves fewer than 30 elementary students. It has educated three generations of Angi Beaulieu’s family.
“It’s been in my life for a very long time,” Beaulieu said. “I absolutely love it.”
Home to about 800 people, Croydon is known for its unique education model: The Croydon Village School offers local instruction through fourth grade, but the district foots the bill for older students to attend a nearby middle and high school of their choice, including private options. But this arrangement could radically change, after just 20 voters approved a measure to cut the school budget in half — from about $1.7 million to $800,000 — at Croydon’s sparsely attended annual town meeting in March.
Now, Croydon’s local school is at the center of a battle over what public education here should look like, who should pay for it and whether small town democracy is working as it’s meant to.
It’s unclear what learning will look like in Croydon with this pared down funding; the school board is supposed to send its final budget to the state for approval by April 1. Meanwhile, Beaulieu and other residents are rallying behind a campaign to reverse the funding cuts. The issue will be back up for a vote at a special town meeting on May 7, but it will only move forward if more than half of Croydon’s registered voters show up — a high bar for local elections.
“People have moved into our town for school choice, and now we’re the laughing stock,” said Beaulieu, one of 14 people who voted against the budget cuts on town meeting day. “We’re viewed like we don’t want to pay our bills, we don't want to take care of our kids — and that is, for me, the last thing from the truth.”
Supporters of funding cuts see potential for a new blueprint for public education
While some residents are wary of what the funding cuts could mean for local students, others see Croydon as a blueprint for how to radically reshape public education in New Hampshire.
As it scrambles to create a new budget, the school board is exploring the possibility of paying private companies to remotely manage a personalized learning program for elementary students at the Croydon Village School. This would potentially involve replacing teachers with aides who aren’t required to have education certificates and receive limited training.
“I did not choose to jump into this,” Jody Underwood, chair of the Croydon School Board, told a crowd of angry parents at one of several contentious meetings held since the budget vote. “I am embracing it as an opportunity.”
The proposal to cut Croydon’s school budget was put forward by Ian Underwood, who is married to Jody Underwood and sits on the town’s select board. Jody Underwood said she knew about her husband’s plans in advance of town meeting day but didn’t believe she had a duty to notify the public before the vote.
“I didn't even expect it to pass,” she told NHPR. “I didn’t tell anybody but maybe my closest friends about it.”
The Underwoods moved to Croydon 15 years ago as part of the Free State Project, a libertarian movement to bring “freedom-loving people” to New Hampshire that has focused on reducing the size and influence of government institutions. Both have questioned the amount of money Croydon spends on education.
Ian Underwood, in particular, sees public education as a failed experiment, citing stagnant test scores and rising expenses. He offers frequent criticism of local schools on Granite Grok, a conservative blog.
He is also frustrated by what he views as a sense of entitlement among parents in the public school system who, he said, expect other people to help foot the rising cost of educating children.
“[That money] would actually be better used if we took the money and just burned it for heat,” he said.
And while some Croydon residents see his cuts to the school budget as an example of Free Staters using the tools of democracy to push a radical agenda, Ian Underwood dismissed those claims. He said people who aren’t connected to the Free State Project also supported the funding cuts, including older residents whose children no longer attend school.
“They happen to be people who live in New Hampshire and believe there should be limited government interference and are tired of being treated like farm animals,” he said.
The Underwoods and others backing the cuts say parents will come around to the cheaper learning models necessitated by a downsized budget, because kids will get personalized learning and more flexibility.
But even some parents who are otherwise sympathetic to the idea of smaller government say the last two years of COVID-related school disruptions have underscored the importance of in-person school and services.
“I get their idea of less government. I’m totally on board with that,” says Amie Freak, a mother of three who is campaigning for a re-vote, alongside her sister, Angi Beaulieu. “But slashing the school budget isn’t the way to do that.”
Some residents see a signs of a deeper shift in Croydon's local government
Thomas Moore, a teacher and former school board member, worries about what the funding cuts mean for the future of education in Croydon — and the community at large.
“They’re playing a game of experimental politics with our children,” he said. “And it’s just sad to see.”
Moore said it seemed like the local school system was just starting to stabilize after another round of budget cuts four years ago. Croydon’s reputation for school choice, and its close-knit elementary school, was bringing new families into town.
“It was increasing our property values, it was doing great things for this town,” he said. “And in one small Saturday meeting, they managed to ruin all that and send us in the opposite direction.”
Moore’s not the only resident who said the recent school funding battle has changed how they think about their community.
Ron Leslie, who has lived in Croydon most of his 77 years, said debates about local issues weren't always so polarized. It seemed like people used to feel more comfortable hearing out different opinions and volunteering for town positions.
“It was just a typical small, New Hampshire town,” Leslie said.
But lately, he said, that’s changed. Meetings are poorly attended and a lot more tense. Unless there’s a crisis, there’s apathy. Fewer people are also running for office, he said, and some of those who do step up prioritize lowering taxes above all else.
While Leslie acknowledges that the recent school budget vote was legal — it happened during Croydon’s annual town meeting, where major funding decisions are usually hammered out — he still doesn’t like how it was handled. He doesn’t think voters were given enough notice to weigh in on such a profound funding cut, otherwise more people would have shown up to try to stop them.
“I just think everyone oughta get a fair shake,” he said.
Some Croydon residents also see the effort to slash school funding as part of a broader trend to chip away at public services in town. A few years ago, Ian Underwood and others on Croydon’s select board voted to get rid of the local police department and instead rely on the New Hampshire State Police for coverage.
Dan Johnston, who had planned to send his young kids to Croydon Village School, wonders when it will end.
“They got rid of the police department, next is going to be the school,” he said. “And then what? You're going to tell the road agent he can’t work over a certain amount of hours, now we get four storms in a week, and the roads aren’t plowed?”
But Jim Peschke, a former school board member who has long advocated for budget cuts, said things are working the way they’re supposed to. Those who showed up to Croydon’s town meeting in March sent a clear message about their desire for a smaller budget and lower taxes, he said. Croydon’s property tax rate is already below the state’s average, but it will be significantly lower with the slashed school budget.
While other residents are trying to rally enough voters to overturn the school funding cuts at a special town meeting in May, Peschke is discouraging people from participating to avoid meeting quorum, thus blocking the vote.
“Nobody was holding anyone home to prevent them from coming to town meeting,” Peschke said. “The public voted. This is a change we need, and it’s a change we should have.”