School board deadlocks on vote for this year’s chair

BENNINGTON — ConVal School Board members deadlocked when it came to choosing this year’s board chair at their first meeting following the March elections, with five of them supporting incumbent Butch Estey of Peterborough while five others backed Greenfield board member Myron Steere. But they did elect Pierce Rigrod of Hancock as vice chair, and Rigrod stepped in to conduct Thursday’s board meeting.

Estey, who has been a board board member for 11 years, has served two terms as chair and is a member of the board’s Budget and Property Committee, education and personnel and negotiations committee. Steere, who has been on the board since 2012, had been critical of the budget process and had in January recommended cutting the district’s proposed budget by $425,000, a motion that was turned down by the full board.

Earlier this month, voters rejected the district’s proposed $45.8 million operating budget, leaving the board faced with the challenge of cutting about $770,000 in order to reach a default budget of about $45 million. Board members did not discuss how they would do that during Thursday’s meeting. Voters also turned down several warrant articles supported by the School Board.

Prior to the vote on the School Board chair position, Geoffrey Taylor requested permission, which was granted, to speak to the board.

“The votes taken recently were definitely about lack of communication,” Taylor said. “The board needs to take seriously issues of cost and declining enrollment. You have to take up these issues soon and make things clear to the community. I’d suggest the board strongly consider changing leadership.”

After Taylor spoke, board members voted one by one, announcing their preference for Estey or Steere. There was a bit of confusion regarding the tally — a couple of the votes were not loudly announced and Peterborough board member Joel Green voted by telephone, which was not on speakerphone. School Superintendent Brendan Minnihan initially announced that Steere had been elected, and Steere briefly took a seat to chair the meeting, and Rigrod was elected as vice-chair. Then Minnihan announced that the results had actually been a 5 to 5 tie. After a brief recess, where Minnihan, Steere, Estey and Rigrod consulted, Minnihan said they had agreed to hold off on electing a chair until the next meeting.

Board members who voted for Estey were Green, Rigrod, Linda Quintanilla of Bennington, Tom Ferenc of Peterborough and Estey himself. Members supporting Steere were Rich Cahoon of Antrim, Fiona Tibbetts of Dublin, David Martz of Temple, Stephan Morrissey of Francestown, and Steere himself.

Board members Jon Ingram of Peterborough and Crista Salamy of Antrim were not present for the vote, although Salamy arrived later for some of the meeting.

The Sharon seat on the board is vacant, after the four people who got the most write-in votes in the March 11 balloting declined the job. Sharon officials are contacting the other 10 people who got at least one write-in vote, in an effort to fill the position.

On Friday, Estey said he hopes all board members will be present to vote at the next meeting.

“I knew this would be close. I think we both have the interest of the district at heart,” he said. “The vote for chair is very important and I’m glad there’s that much interest. We’ll wait and see what happens.”

Steere said he was disappointed by the awkwardness of the vote, but said it was important to get the decision right.

“I think the School Board is at a decisive point,” he said on Friday. “Do we move into the future or continue down the same path? I think it’s a critical time. We need to provide a quality education while still being cost conscious. We need to have better transparency on the working of the board.”

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