By John Toole
---- — DERRY — A state senator is publicly attacking his local School Board over what he calls “irresponsible” budgeting.
Sen. Jim Rausch, R-Derry, yesterday distributed to newspapers a letter addressed “To the Citizens of Derry” in which he blasted the School Board.
Rausch didn’t spare the citizens either, faulting “voter inattention” for a nearly $82 million budget bound for a Town Meeting vote on March 12.
“I find it irrational that the Derry School Board has increased spending by 116 percent while losing 18 percent of its students and receiving 20 percent more in state funding,” Rausch wrote.
He also criticized School Board members and teachers for voting at the deliberative session Saturday to add another $800,000 to the budget proposal.
“Here’s the bottom line: Less than 100 citizens of Derry attended the deliberative session on Feb. 2 to vote on an almost $82 million budget,” Rausch said. “Voter inattention, and a process that is often poorly understood, will now result in our citizens paying for a significant tax increase this fall.”
Rausch said taxpayers potentially would see a $2.97 increase in the $30.48 per $1,000 property valuation tax rate that could give Derry the highest tax rate in New Hampshire.
Derry is a great community with wonderful citizens, he said, but can’t survive if the tax burden drives people from town.
“We must restore the balance between wants and needs, and be mindful of the affordability of our actions,” Rausch wrote, “that begins and ends with responsible budgeting.”
Rausch said when it comes to supporting children and education he is, “all in,” and cited his decision as a father to send his children to Derry schools, as well as past support for school budgets and school construction.
School Board member Wendy Smith, who supported adding $800,000 to the budget Saturday, said she would not respond to Rausch’s letter. But she acknowledged she knew the senator was upset at the deliberative session.
Smith defended the budget, which she said the board had worked on for months to put together.
“It’s a balanced budget and we took cuts where we had to,” Smith said.
Rausch’s attack on the School Board struck New Hampshire political observers as unusual.
“Nothing like this comes to mind,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said. “This doesn’t seem to be a regular occurrence. I would think state senators typically try to stay above the fray.”
Southern New Hampshire University political science professor Dean Spiliotes also couldn’t recall such an attack.
Spiliotes saw the Rausch letter as an attempt to fold municipal debate into the larger statewide debate over taxes, school funding and the education bureaucracy.
“It’s kind of a way to crank up the discourse about these issues,” Spiliotes said.
Derry is a safe Republican seat, so there’s likely little political risk to Rausch from taking on the School Board, though it could prompt someone to consider a challenge, Scala said.
Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Concord-based Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, said state senators should be expressing opinions about how much money towns are receiving for schools and how it should be used.
He described Rausch as one of the most knowledgeable senators on education funding.
Arlinghaus said few people are participating in deliberative sessions.
“We should want more people to attend,” Arlinghaus said. “I’m encouraged by this kind of publicity.”