Croydon cut its school budget in half. Inside the historic push to reverse that decision
Voters in Croydon usually have one chance to weigh in on their school budget. But this year, they have two.
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After a dramatic cut to the school budget in March, a group of Croydon residents is organizing a revote on Saturday they say will seal the fate of the public school system in the small town near Sunapee. They’re campaigning at a level few towns in New Hampshire have ever seen, and that parents here had never imagined.
“I'm not a really political person, but this is really meaningful to me,” says Tom Moore, a father of three and former school board member. “I could be spending $27,000 a year just to send my kids to public school, which is audacious. I can't afford to do that.”
The budget battle in Croydon began at the annual school district meeting on March 12, when a small group of voters approved a surprise measure to slash the budget in half from $1.7 million to $800,000. It passed by a vote of just 20 to 14 and shocked many residents, especially parents of Croydon students, most of whom were not at the meeting. Members of the town’s libertarian Free State Project who proposed the cut celebrated it as a key victory for their vision of limited government and low taxes.
Now, that’s the budget Croydon has to stick with, with one caveat: According to state law, a school district can change its budget after the annual meeting if half the town’s registered voters show up to a special meeting, cast a ballot, and the majority opt to change the budget.
Annual meetings in Croydon usually have less than 50 voters. To be valid, Saturday’s meeting needs at least 283 voters. Reaching that threshold for a non-presidential election would be historic.
And that’s where We Stand Up for Croydon Students comes in. The group formed soon after the March cut, with the goal of reinstating the budget. They’re sending fliers, writing letters to the editor, phone banking and going door to door, urging their neighbors to show up on Saturday.
On a recent afternoon, members of the newly formed group fanned across the town with lists of voter addresses and campaign material.
Ed Spiker, 38, and his two sons visited their neighbor, Dorothy Daltorio, who has a “We Stand Up for Croydon Students” sign in her yard right next to her “New Hampshire for Trump” flag. She told Spiker she’ll be there on May 7, and she wants the budget restored.
“I think so many kids got so much out of Little Red,” Daltorio said, referring to Croydon’s one-room schoolhouse, which serves the younger students in grades K-4. “Just being that small school and knowing their community and stuff. And it’ll be gone if this happens."
Daltorio is an example of how this budget fight has scrambled the stereotypical political lines seen in state and federal government. In Croydon, conservatives, liberals, and others who don’t identify with a political party are teaming up to preserve the bigger budget. And many of those who are trying to preserve the budget cut, including members of the Free State Project and longtime residents who want lower taxes, also don’t see eye to eye on other issues.
We Stand Up for Croydon Students has a simple message: If the town sticks with $800,000, public school in Croydon is over.
Under the school board’s current plan – and if the budget cut stands – Croydon’s K-4 school will be replaced with what are called “learning pods.” These would be run by a private company, Prenda, and instead of accredited teachers, children would get help from adults trained as “guides.” This would make Croydon the first school district in New Hampshire to implement a partnership with the company.
And that’s just the elementary school. Since the town doesn’t have its own middle and high school, older Croydon students can choose from a selection of nearby private and public schools and attend at the taxpayer’s expense. But under the leaner budget, the school board plans to allot just $9,000 per student.
That will cover Croydon students going to some local private schools and to online programs. But it’s not enough to cover tuition to nearby public schools. Newport High School, for instance, has a tuition of close to $18,000.
Unless the Croydon school board can convince the nearby public schools to dramatically lower their tuitions for Croydon students, parents like Ed Spiker might have to make up the difference. Parents with multiple kids are contemplating spending close to $30,000 to send them to the local public schools.
Spiker explained this to another voter up the road.
“My son will be a senior next year, and I've also got a fifth-grader that are both in Newport and just potentially to put them through school next year … I'll have to work an extra thousand hours,” he said. “And I don't have an extra thousand hours to work and be a father.”
The vision for education in Croydon with a lower budget is supported by members of the libertarian Free State Project and their local allies. The Free State Project began 20 years ago as a libertarian movement to bring “freedom-loving people” to New Hampshire that has focused on reducing the size and influence of government institutions.
Members of the Free State Project have had some big wins in Croydon. They helped expand school choice; they eliminated the town’s one-man police department; and some members hold local office.
Consider Jody and Ian Underwood, a married couple who moved to Croydon as part of the Free State Project in 2007 and co-own a farm up the road from Little Red. Jody Underwood chairs the Croydon school board. On town meeting day in March, she presented the original school budget. And it was her husband, Ian, who proposed slashing it in half that day.
Many parents and some other residents are furious with Jody Underwood for supporting the cut. They say she’s not sticking up for their kids. She says that’s not her job.
“The reason we have school boards is because tax dollars are used for the schools. It is our job to make sure that that money is spent well. And that's it,” she told NHPR. “Our job is not to keep school buildings open. It is not even to make sure that all kids get a great education. It's to make sure that they have the opportunity for an adequate education.”
Underwood has been trying to convince families these private companies could better deliver that education than the public schools do. She points out that the private online programs the school board is planning to contract with would progress at the pace of each student, rather than the class as whole.
“I've been doing educational research for 30 years, and individualized learning is the thing to do and to use modern technology to help with it,” she says. “And look, they use technology in schools all over the place. Don't say people don't use online curriculum and so on. They do.”
The Underwoods also know people across New Hampshire are watching what happens in Croydon. That includes organizers of the Free State Project, who are using the story of the budget cut to demonstrate the impact people can make when they move to New Hampshire and engage in local politics.
It also includes the state chapter of the National Education Association. The teachers’ union recently made an ad linking what’s happening in Croydon to a Republican-backed bill in the State House that would allow local governments to cap their school district budgets.
‘A perfect example of democracy’
As We Stand up for Croydon Students organizers go door to door, residents who want to keep the budget cut have a strategy for May 7, too. And it’s simple: Stay home. That’s because the fewer voters who show up, the less likely the meeting will meet the necessary quorum to overturn the budget cut.
Ian Underwood has sent mailers to households in Croydon, urging people to boycott the vote.
“Stand up for Croydon students and taxpayers,” it reads. “Better Education. Lower Taxes.”
Jim Peschke, a former school board member who supports the budget cut, says it’s all about the numbers.
“It's not some grand Machiavellian scheme,” he says. “But the way the law is set up, the way to vote no is to not show up.”
The sparse turnout on Town Meeting Day and the upheaval since has prompted reflection for many residents about how democratic institutions are supposed to work, and what the consequences are when voters don’t show up to debate their local budgets.
Peschke says the revote is anti-democratic.
“The people pushing for the revote are embracing what I would call armchair democracy, fair weather democracy,” he said. “They support democracy as long as it goes their way and as soon as it doesn't, they descend into the do-over dictatorship.”
Angi Beaulieu, one of the parents organizing the revote, notes that her group is only taking the legal steps necessary to have their say.
“Those steps are in place so that if something like this happens, if someone comes in and hijacks your budget, that there are ways that you can try to save it,” she says. “I feel like it's a perfect example of democracy.”
As of Wednesday, 52 residents had registered to vote, largely motivated by Saturday’s meeting.
But until voters make a decision, taxpayers, students, and teachers are in limbo. Nicole Lackie, the vice principal of Croydon Village School, says they’ve tried to keep spirits up this week.
In honor of teacher appreciation week, she’s making cards for each teacher and painting flower pots with the thumbprints of every student.
But she says the uncertainty is still taking a toll.
“People are really nervous, very unsure of what's happening … ,” she says, “And it's my job to just keep ‘the happy,’ and encouraging everybody that we will work through this.
“And Saturday is going to come and it is going to go, and there will be some form of a change at that meeting. Who knows what it is?”
The meeting starts at 9 a.m. on Saturday at YMCA Camp Coniston. It’s the biggest space the town could find nearby for what organizers of the revote hope is a big crowd. The question is whether that crowd will be big enough.