By Doug Ireland
---- — It was all about change and controlling spending.
When Southern New Hampshire voters stepped out of the ballot booth Tuesday, their voices were heard loud and clear.
They didn’t have to speak out to express their discontent. It was clearly reflected in the vote tallies.
Voters rejected big-ticket projects and ousted longtime incumbents — a sign they are still reeling from the economic downturn that’s gripped local communities for several years, officials said.
That meant a proposed $31 million middle school in Windham went down in defeat as did a $1.7 million kindergarten project in Pelham. Sandown voters killed a proposal for a $945,000 police station.
Defeat of the middle school project also meant the end of School Board Chairman Bruce Anderson’s nine-year reign. Anderson was the project’s leading proponent; opponent Dennis Senibaldi was one of its biggest critics.
Other incumbents bounced from office included James Doggett, a Sanborn Regional School Board member for 24 years, and Atkinson Selectmen’s Chairman Fred Childs, replaced after 12 years.
Newton Selectmen’s Chairman Trisha McCarthy was also booted in favor of Robert Donovan Jr., who resigned from the board two years ago. In Derry, Town Councilors Joel Olbricht and David Milz were tossed out in favor of Mark Osborne and Tom Cardon.
Voters did approve some big projects — scaled-down concepts of past proposals that were defeated as taxpayers struggled to make ends meet.
They include a new police station in Hampstead, approved on the fifth attempt, and a $16.2 million renovation of the Fisk, Soule and Haigh elementary schools in Salem.
But Salem voters rejected a proposal to spend an additional $805,237 on improvements to Haigh due to the possibility it could be closed because of declining student enrollment.
Last year, a $21.5 million plan to upgrade the three elementary schools was defeated. That defeat came only two years after voters approved $22 million for the renovation of Salem’s three other elementary schools.
Superintendent Michael Delahanty said he was pleased with residents’ decision to renovate the elementary schools, saying the district will now plan for much-needed upgrades at Woodbury and Salem High schools.
Some voters hope they will be able to fund the final two school projects with revenues from a $425 million casino proposed at Rockingham Park. Eighty-one percent showed their support for a casino by backing a nonbinding proposal at the polls, hoping expanded gambling would create jobs and revitalize the local economy during tough economic times.
Some projects rejected
In Windham, school officials will consider their next move after the middle school project went down in a 2,503-1,217 vote, failing to get the necessary three-fifths support, School Administrative Unit Superintendent Henry LaBranche said. SAU 28 represents Windham and Pelham.
“Obviously, there is a sense of disappointment and frustration,” LaBranche said. “But it wasn’t a shock in Windham. We were positive we would get a positive vote, but knew getting two-thirds would be a difficult achievement.”
The proposal came only a few years after voters spent millions of dollars on its new state-of-the-art high school.
LaBranche said the economy and timing were big factors in the rejection. Anderson agreed.
“It’s difficult that the economy isn’t back to where people are confident,” Anderson said.
The middle school wasn’t the only expense voted down in Windham. Voters also rejected a teachers contract and the $45 million proposed school budget.
“People were just saying no, and Dennis (Senibaldi) was saying they had other options,” Anderson said.
Senibaldi, a former selectman, was elected 1,904-1,359 over Anderson. He opposed the new school, saying it was more feasible to expand the current building.
On election night, Senibaldi said the votes clearly reflected public dissatisfaction.
“This was a statement from residents,” he said. “Hopefully, the rest of the board takes a deep breath and reflects.”
LaBranche and other SAU 28 officials are also coping with the defeat of the $1.7 million kindergarten addition at Pelham Elementary School, despite the availability of up to $1 million in state aid.
That wasn’t all.
Pelham voters also rejected an $895,000 renovation of Town Hall to accommodate school administration staff and a back-up plan for the lease of office space for the staff. They also defeated a teachers contract and the town and school budgets.
Business administrator Adam Steel said it was the perfect opportunity for voters to approve the kindergarten project and take care of an important need while state aid was available.
“Especially when the money is drying up as of June 30 and won’t come back,” he said.
Longtime incumbents ousted
Like Windham’s Anderson, there were plenty of dedicated public servants who suddenly found themselves out of office.
In Atkinson, some voters wanted new leadership, including David Jackson.
“We’re due for a change,” he said at the polls. “We need to get some new ideas out there.”
That’s one reason why Childs, the selectmen’s chairman, was defeated by William Baldwin, a former Atkinson police lieutenant now employed by Plaistow.
“I think part of it is that people are looking for change and they are looking for new direction in town government,” Baldwin said. “They don’t want the same old thing.”
Baldwin said he didn’t know if Childs’ defeat had anything to do with selectmen’s recent decision to fire longtime police Chief Phil Consentino. He had served the town since 1969.
Baldwin said one of his goals as a selectmen is to push for the formation of an economic development committee to help revitalize Atkinson.
A sluggish local economy also is an issue in Derry, where Cardon — one of the two newly elected councilors — said his door-to-door campaigning helped him defeat Milz.
Cardon, who won the District 2 seat, 343-295, said he told residents he was determined to lower taxes in Derry, which has the highest property tax rate in the state.
“I talked to 50 to 60 people and they were all concerned,” he said. “Taxes are on everyone’s mind. People are afraid of losing their homes. I think those people are the ones who made a difference.”
Doggett, the 24-year Sanborn School Board member, said he wasn’t bitter and did not have any regrets after losing to Renee Kelly, 419-289.
“It is what is,” he said. “Any number of factors can affect a race. My opponent got out the vote.”
Doggett said he plans to keep a close eye on board business.
“Being off the board is not going to end my interest in how the board acts,” he said.
In Newton, Donovan said he wasn’t sure why he beat McCarthy, a selectman since 2007.
He speculated it was because voters wanted a change.
“I ran because I wanted to make a few changes,” he said. “I saw the selectmen making a lot of changes the people should be making.”