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In 1906 British scientist Francis Galton set out to prove the "average voter" was capable of very little, but discovered something very different.

At a local fair, he tallied some 800 entries from a competition to guess the weight of an ox. Although individual guesses were all over the scale, so to speak, they averaged 1,197 pounds. The ox weighed 1,198, statistically the same.

Call it collective intelligence or wisdom of crowds, but the phenomenon has been analyzed and applied for eons, referenced in everything from the Bible to books on picking stocks.

Candidates, budgets and special articles are more complex than a farm animal, but through the years we observe the poll results consistently confirm voters — collectively — almost always get it right. Congratulations to the winners of the competitive races. Michelle Capozzoli and John Skelton received the most votes for school board, and campaigned on the importance of creating a strategic, long-term plan. They give us confidence school officials can respond to public pressure to control spending, and restructure a school system with a declining student population, while maintaining and improving the quality of education.

Town hall tends to attract the most "local" of candidates and this year's winners for selectmen, incumbents David Weathers and Mary Seavey, are no exception. Both have long, long histories in Conway as public servants and were given a vote of confidence to continue to represent town government as they have, competently and professionally. Challenger Kevin MacMillan, who ran mostly on the taxes-are-too-high platform, did surprisingly well running against two entrenched and connected incumbents, and clearly struck a chord with voters.

The wisdom of the voters, however, was most obvious in the votes on the tax caps. Complicated and convoluted, the tax cap failed on both the school and town ballots. Tellingly, though, it got trounced on the town side, but nearly got a majority on the school ballot. The message, of course, one voters have expressed for years, is town spending is under control and school spending isn't.

Kudos also to Kennett High School teacher Chris Bailey for eloquently and intelligently contributing to the debate in the opinion pages of the Sun. He was forcefully challenged, as those with courage enough to publicly voice their opinions often are, but he was an important, needed and welcomed voice. Teachers Jon Judge and Jason Cicero also mustered their opinions for the op-ed pages grist mill, and they, too, deserve recognition.

The Sun is one of few local arenas for public discourse, and for teachers and administration, year in and year out, to cede the debate to the anti-school-spending crowd does little to inspire enthusiasm in the very people they most need support from — those who don't have direct connections to the school.

We'd prefer to call it New Hampshire flintiness rather than collective wisdom, but a note of thanks to the three members of the supervisors of the checklist, whose request for a $300 yearly raise was denied.

 

 

For years in this space we've railed against the school budget.

But the school board's decision to increase the superintendent's salary to $160,000 to attract quality candidates is not only a logical solution to a real problem, but sets a standard of performance and expectations that could trigger a new culture of badly needed reform. 

The Conway school system has many excellent teachers, who staff many excellent programs, (both in and out of the classroom), which turn out many excellent students. 

It is also plagued by excessive turnover by first, second and third year teachers, absurdly expensive health care, and a level of staffing that is too big for the student population, which has shrunk, and continues to shrink, dramatically. 

In support of bumping the current superintendent's salary of $115,000 by $45,000, school board member Mark Hounsell made the analogy to the free-spending Yankees and Red Sox, whose payrolls are among the highest in baseball. 

Hounsell's point, "you get what you pay for" is true enough, but the analogy doesn't quite fit. 

Sox slugger David Ortiz will make $14.5 million this year — the third most on the team. Not surprisingly, he is arguably its most valuable player. 

The schools, though, are hog-tied by the teachers' union that dictates all teachers are basically paid the same rate of pay. This obviously hamstrings administrators from rewarding, and retaining, many of the "David Ortiz" superstars, whom invariably leave for greener pastures.

Not that salary is always or even the primary motivator for teachers, but it is a starting point, and like any business or organization which pays less than its competitors, many of the candidates who apply to Conway schools are ones who have been rejected by other school systems. Conway is often their second, third or fourth choice.  

The solution to retaining quality teachers even under the onerous constraint of an inflexible teachers' union is surprisingly simple--pay fewer teachers more money. 

If it meant more pay, many teachers and administrators say privately they could, and would, teach more classes and increase their class sizes. In an off-the-record comment, one school official said many tell him they could comfortably "can get it done."

The Yankees-Red Sox analogy is also a bit off because in baseball the teams that spend the most almost always have the most to spend. It's why small market teams like Kansas City, with not much money, eventually lose its best players to bigger markets like Boston and New York.

There's a mistaken notion amplified by some people who support the status quo in our schools that our community is not willing to "invest in education."  Nothing is further from the truth, and like small markets which can't afford baseball's superstars, Conway's taxpayers, which have absorbed nearly a 50 percent increase in property taxes in just over a decade, have less financial resources than wealthier communities in the state like Hanover. 

The median household income in Conway is $44,000. In Hanover it is $86,000. Conway spends $14,000 per student; Hanover spends $18,000.

Conway taxpayers can not be expected to keep up with wealthier Hanover property owners, no more than the Kansas City Royals can  afford to pay David Ortiz $14.5 million a year.

The proposed school budget for next year is roughly $34 million.  Of that, $8 million is for health insurance, an amount so obscenely high that the premiums of two of the three plans offered to school employees qualify as excessive defined by Obamacare. 

Known as the Cadillac tax, yearly premiums starting in 2018 for single coverage that exceed $10,200 and $27,500 for families will be subject to a 40 percent penalty.  Two of the three plans currently offered by the school (ones that can be expected to be much more expensive in four years) would qualify for the Cadillac tax, and the least expensive misses by just a few hundred dollars. 

Can one person make a difference? Could the school's top administrator instill a new philosophy that prioritizes higher salaries for teachers pay, and pay for it by intelligently down-sizing the school system and overhauling health insurance?

A best-in-the-state, reform-minded superintendent could. A salary of $160,000 doesn't guarantee we'll get that person, but it gets us in the ballgame. 

 

 School board members fall into two broad philosophical camps.
One group -- chairman Janine McLauchlan, Kelly Murphy, Rick Breton and Syndi White -- generally follows the lead of school superintendent Carl Nelson. In a nutshell they represent the status quo.
The other group -- Joe Lentini, Mark Hounsell and John Skelton -- are reform-minded. Their agenda turns on the very real, long-term challenge of improving the school system while restructuring it to accommodate a student population in decline.
Four candidates are competing for three seats -- incumbents Breton, McLauchlan and Skelton, and challenger Michelle Capozzoli.
We contend the highest priority for voters is to re-elect Skelton. 
Shelton is contemplative and can intelligently articulate his views on the future of Conway schools, as evidenced by a letter printed to the Sun earlier this week.  He probably spends more time in the schools than any of the other board members, and is a passionate advocate for teachers.  As one of the reformers, he is open-minded and progressive, traits needed as the school downsizes. 
Our second choice is challenger Michelle Capozzoli. She not only has the professional chops as a former assistant professor and current program director of a graduate degree program at Granite State College, but based on her profile that appears in today's Sun, clearly understands the challenges the school system now faces. That's a good starting point for a new board member. 
Of the two remaining candidates, McLauchlan and Breton, we support Breton. A full year ago Hounsell proposed creating a long-term strategic planning committee. Only last week has it begun to organize. The chairman controls the agenda, and we hold McLauchlan responsible for not moving sooner. 
 
Selectmen seats
On the town ballot, two incumbents, Mary Seavey and chairman David Weathers, and one challenger, Kevin MacMillan, are competing for two open seats. 
We'd like to see McMillan get a seat on the board, but are withholding an endorsement because we have a conflict of interest.  MacMillan has a close relationship with the Sun. He built the building, continues to make improvements to it, and plows its parking lot. It is a connection a little too close for us to be objective about. 
That said, MacMillan would bring sharpened opinions and perspectives to a board that could use a few.  He's not afraid to take a position, and fought some tough legal battles protecting the town's interests as a member of the planning board in the early 1980s. 
Seavey is a fine representative of the board and the community, and Weathers, as chairman, does a good job running meetings, but neither has stood out on a board that is competent, but, in our view, woefully inactive, particularly on issues affecting the business community.
 
Tax Cap
We're voting in the affirmative for the 2.5 percent tax cap, but because it requires passage by three-fifths margin, realize it will likely fail.
The tax cap would limit the amount to be raised by taxes for yearly spending increases for the schools to 2.5 percent and 10 percent for the town. Because there are other factors, like the amount of revenue both the town and schools receive from various sources that would affect budgets other than just the cap, it would add an onerous layer of complications to budgeting. 
So while the tax cap is a bit complicated to understand, not to mention implement, a show of support for it in the voting booth would send a clear message to selectmen and the school board. 
 

There is an irony so glaring in the special election Tuesday to fill the seat left vacant by Executive Councilor Ray Burton, it convinced us to support Mike Cyrans over Joe Kenney. 

 

Burton, the Republican executive councilor for 30 years who recently died of cancer, was known foremost for his non-partisan approach and legendary constituent service.  

 

In a job that functions best when it is not driven by party affiliations, Kenney, a Republican from Wakefield, not only is not avoiding partisanship but promises to make it a priority. 

 

The five-member executive council — the only one if its kind in the country — approves contracts and nominations, and generally oversees the business of the state. 

 

It is not the place for overt partisanship in our opinion, and Kenney wears his on his sleeve, having said his role will be to act as a check to Gov. Maggie Hassan, and predicts if he is elected all the votes will be 3-2 (three Democrats, two Republicans).

 

Cryans, who lives in Hanover and is a native of Littleton, has the same tone, temperament and approach as Burton, and although a Democrat, has the support of Burton's family. 

 

In fact, many Republicans are behind Cryans, including former Republican congressman Bill Zeliff, who said in his endorsement that Cryans and Burton are "cut from the same cloth." 

 

Politics is politics and casts a heavy shadow over every election, including this one, which because of the big geographic size of the district is seen as a litmus test for a potential race between Sen. Jeanne Sheehan and Republican Scott Brown. 

 

So to say politics isn't playing a role would be naive, but this election is as close as it gets where party politics doesn't matter.

 The proposed 2.5 percent cap on money raised by taxes will likely be the most controversial topic at both the town and school deliberative meetings Monday and Wednesday. 

A cap on money raised by taxes is more complicated than a spending cap, so it won't be a surprise if discussions at both meetings drift into the weeds, as voters pepper the sponsors with questions. 

Here's a primer on how the tax cap works.

It is a bit complicated because the town and school budgets include money raised from taxes (reflected in your tax bill) and money received as revenue from other sources. 

The town, for example, gets money for vehicle registrations and other permits. The schools receive money from the state, the feds and from surrounding towns which pay tuition to send their children to Conway schools. 

For the schools and the town, budget planning with this tax cap adds a layer of complexity because of the uncertainties of those outside revenues.

So, for instance, if outside revenues go up, the town and schools would have more money to spend than allowed by the tax cap.  

Conversely, if revenues fall, the town and schools would not have the ability to make up the shortfall beyond raising taxes 2.5 percent, and budgets would be cut — dramatically. 

Although the tax cap if approved wouldn't take effect until next year, this is how it would change the budgets this year. 

Of the town's nearly $10 million budget, about $8 million is raised through taxes. If the tax cap were in place this year the town would be allowed no more than an $180,000 increase, which is about $400,000 short of the actual proposed budget. 

The school budget is $34 million, of which $13 million is raised by taxes, and it is up $1.4 million. The tax cap would limit that increase to about $400,000, meaning $1 million would have to be cut.

Not surprisingly, elected officials are overwhelmingly against the tax cap as it limits their power to increase the budgets.   

School board member Joe Lentini's comment this week summed up the sentiment of both boards when he said officials are "elected to do a job and now this is telling us what to do."

True enough, but beyond elected officials taking the tax cap as a personal affront, they should take seriously property owners so outraged by high taxes they are motivated enough to take matters into their hands. 

Although both the town and the schools would likely take hits to their budgets with a tax cap, disaffected voters are mostly unhappy with the schools.

The schools' proposed budget including special articles is up 9 percent this year, meaning taxes on a $200,000 home will go up about $208. Last year the increase was $266.

Voters are frustrated at the school board's inability to come up with a long-term plan to restructure the school system --- which at the least means closing one or two elementary schools, and reforming health care --- to reflect the reality of a steep decline in student enrollment that shows no signs of ebbing. 

It's too early to tell whether the tax cap is a good idea, and even if it survives intact from the deliberative meetings it will need a three-fifths majority vote to pass at the ballot box in April. 

Objecting to the tax cap, school board member Mark Hounsell said he didn't care "if it's on a gold tablet brought down from Mount Washington, I will not be told what I will or won't do." 

We say, neither should voters. And in that spirit we ask those who attend the deliberative sessions not to derail the tax cap and to allow all voters to decide whether it passes or fails at the polls in April. 

 

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