OSSIPEE — The conflict between Ossipee selectmen and the Governor Wentworth Regional School District (SAU 49) escalated Monday when the school board voted to sue the selectmen for failing to make payments on the district’s billing schedule.
Meanwhile, the three members of the Ossipee Board of Selectmen — Martha Eldridge, Sandra “Sam” Martin and Sue Simpson — backed off from demanding that the state set a zero-dollar education tax rate.
The town of Ossipee’s designated high school is Kingswood Regional in Wolfeboro, which is part of SAU 49.
Two issues are in contention. First, selectmen, in the face of what they say are rising school taxes, decided they would send tax revenues to the district in equal monthly payments instead of the payment schedule the district has used for years.
(Generally, the district seeks larger payments following June and December tax bills as that is the time of year when the town has the most money and the school has the biggest expenses.)
Then, selectmen wrote the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration on Oct. 28 seeking a zero dollar tax rate for education as they feel it’s the state’s responsibility to collect the money.
However, this second issue was largely resolved Monday when board members announced they had rescinded that letter.
On the same night, SAU 49 met in New Durham. At that meeting School Superintendent Kathleen Cuddy-Egbert talked about Ossipee not adhering to the school district payment schedule and noted that at a prior meeting, the board directed her to be in touch with the district’s attorney Barbara Loughman of Soule, Leslie, Kidder, Sayward & Loughman.
On Monday, school board members had copies of the writ of mandamus Loughman prepared.
A writ of mandamus, Cuddy-Egbert explained, is “a petition to the court and what we would be looking for is to order the town of Ossipee Board of Selectmen to perform their duties under the law and pay Ossipee’s share of the funds required to operate Governor Wentworth as required by RSA 198:5,” said Cuddy-Egbert.
The school board voted 8-0 to move forward with the writ.
The court paperwork says the town of Ossipee started the month-to-month schedule in July.
At that point, the amount due was about $1.6 million, and selectmen paid $716,000, leaving a deficit of $$890,670, according to the lawsuit.
The suit went on to say that the town would be $70,107 “to the good” in January but fall behind again the very next month. The writ said if other towns started doing what Ossipee is doing, the district would soon be in “very serious financial distress,” and allowing Ossipee to continue would be “manifestly unfair” to the other towns.
Cuddy-Egbert said a community member shared a copy of the selectmen’s letter to the DRA, asking it to set a $0 tax rate. She noted that apparently the selectmen think that collecting taxes is unlawful based on their understanding of the Claremont decision of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
“I think probably most boards of selectmen aren’t reading that the same way,” said Cuddy-Egbert.
She said she asked the DRA for its position and learned that the state disagreed with selectmen and told the selectmen to contact their attorney.
State Rep. Ed Comeau (R-Brookfield), who films Governor Wentworth Regional School District meetings as well as county commissioner and Ossipee selectmen meetings, told the board that earlier in the day, the selectmen had decided to walk back their letter to the DRA asking for the $0 tax rate.
Board members said that was “good news,” but school board chairman Jack Widmer of Tuftonboro pointed out that selectmen “still refusing to pay us on time is not good news”
Widmer said Governor Wentworth is a “cooperative school district” and that five out of the six towns — Brookfield, Effingham, New Durham, Ossipee, Tuftonboro and Wolfeboro — pay their bills on time.
The school district had written Ossipee last month stating they were already over $500,000 in arrears. The total bill for Nov. 1 was $1.1 million.
Cuddy-Egbert and Widmer said selectmen are refusing to talk. She added that one selectman said she refused to “waste a stamp” on replying to the school board. “If Ossipee is not happy with being part of the cooperative school district, then there is a process to withdraw,” said Widmer, who later added they could do a tuition agreement with Ossipee.
“If they want to do that (withdraw), we are more than happy to move forward with that. This is a cooperative school district, and we expect all the towns to cooperate and pay their bills on time.” But he added that he doesn’t want them to leave.
The selectmen had met several hours earlier than the school board and in response to a question about the letter they sent to the DRA, Martin told the Sun, “We rescinded that letter.”
The decision to rescind was made after town officials spoke to the DRA.
However, she said the board is holding fast to making equal monthly payments. She said she was aware the school district would probably take the town to court over the payment schedule and told the Sun in an email Tuesday that escalating school taxes were the motivation for the selectmen.
The local school tax has more than doubled in eight years, going from $5.77 per $1,000 of property value in 2010 to $11.06 in 2018.
The current system “puts a big burden on small towns,” said Martin.
Comeau, who represents Ossipee in the Legislature, asked the selectmen about their letter to the DRA. He said the DRA told him it is required to set the tax rate but that selectmen are responsible for sending the rate to the tax collector for collection.
He referenced Gilmanton resident Joseph Haas, who has been encouraging the selectmen to challenge the school district and the state on constitutional grounds.
“If it’s unconstitutional, technically you shouldn’t be able to send that over to the tax collector and collect it,” said Comeau.
“Not only would you be in breach of your oath if you do that, but if somebody tries to challenge you because you didn’t do it, the court’s going to tell them ‘We can’t do anything because we already ruled it’s unconstitutional,’ which would then hopefully cause the Legislature to act and fix education funding.”
Governmentoversite.com contributed to this story.