Sentinel & Enterprise: Oakmont students rally for funding after failed override

By Amanda Burke

ASHBURNHAM — When members of Oakmont Regional High School’s after-school Art Club last year learned administrators planned to disband their group for want of money to pay its faculty adviser, students snapped into action.

A petition was printed and signed, and students’ disappointment aired on social media. The next day, a voice on the loudspeaker called all Art Club members to the lecture hall.

The about 60 students who participate in Art Club showed up, but so did about one-third of the entire 707-person student body, three Oakmont students said Friday.

The club, members learned inside the lecture hall that autumn day, had been saved.

“You would think football players wouldn’t care about Art Club, but they did,” said Jarrod Tshudy, 17, a rising senior at Oakmont who lists the club among his many extra-curricular activities. “The entire lecture hall was packed.”

A Proposition 2 1/2 override to inject the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District with $1.2 million to hire teaching staff and upgrade technology for fiscal 2018 failed after a split vote between the two towns on Tuesday.

These students said voters must rally behind funding increases if they wish to preserve the district’s reputation for academic excellence. They worried about the ways steeper budget cuts could affect their education, and by extension, their futures.

They highlighted large class sizes, reductions in the number of course sections at Oakmont, and the real possibility their high school will lose New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation if a librarian isn’t rehired.

Oakmont’s previous librarian became an Advanced Placement teacher when the teacher he replaced quit unexpectedly in fall 2015.

A full-time, accredited librarian to replace him was never hired, the students said, adding that part-time staffers currently run the library.

“Losing accreditation damages how colleges view our applications,” said Oakmont rising Senior Danielle Caisse, 17. “I’ve worked hard, not just in high school but all the years leading up to it. If I don’t have a librarian, and that’s why I don’t get into my top choice college, I’m going to be very mad.”

Tshudy said his high school diploma will lose value if Oakmont is stripped of its accreditation.

“It’s going to turn into a piece of paper that doesn’t have meaning attached to it,” he said.

The school is already on warning status with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Superintendent Gary Mazzola has said.

According to the grass-roots parents’ group, Support Our Children and Schools, Oakmont had 41 sections fewer sections last school year than it did in 2006.

With fewer sections to choose from, some students are forced to spend a quarter of their day in the library for a “directed studies” period, otherwise known as study hall, Tshudy said.

“Sometimes you don’t have any homework to do, so you’re just sitting there for 83 minutes,” said Tshudy. “A good amount of students have that problem.”

Tshudy said there weren’t enough desks in his English classroom to seat the about 30 students in his section last fall. So two students were placed on a classroom couch, and two others worked at a table where books and classroom supplies were usually placed.

By the end of the semester, the class watched the Great Gatsby movie because there wasn’t enough time to finish the book, while the teacher dealt with “a few cheating scandals” and disciplinary issues, said Tshudy.

“Students had a hard time in that class paying attention, a lot of bad things happened because there were so many students,” he said. “She’s (the teacher is) only one lady, and she couldn’t get everyone to do what they needed to do.”

Tshudy, Caisse and rising Junior Olivia Kuehl, 16, each shared stories detailing how their younger siblings got along in class sizes of between 25 and 30 students.

Kuehl, 16, a member of the school math team, marching band, and Student Advisory Council, said her younger brother, Nick, struggled to keep pace in fifth grade.

Nick’s teacher juggled too many students to provide the individualized attention he needed, Kuehl said.

“That was the reason why my brother got held back,” she said. “He struggles to learn in class because his teacher can’t get around to everyone.”

The three students said they do not know what to expect from the fiscal 2018 schools budget. At a special meeting Tuesday, the School Committee will discuss next steps after the override failed in Ashburnham by 24 votes.

The students don’t, however, plan to stay silent. Tshudy said he will to knock on doors and discuss the budget with neighbors.

Kuehl said she’ll continue attending School Committee meetings, and Caisse said she’ll reach out to voters in person and on Twitter, encouraging her above-18 Oakmont peers to register to vote should another override question make it onto the ballot.

“We are the future of these towns,” said Caisse. “And if we don’t have the tools of a basic education, we can’t give back to the community.”

Read more:

Sentinel and Enterprise: Ashburnham override puzzles school board

Amanda Burke
Sentinel and Enterprise
Updated: 06/22/2017 09:54:37 AM EDT

WESTMINSTER — The School Committee isn’t ready to back down the day after Ashburnham voters rejected a $1.2 million tax override to fund regional schools.

But they don’t know exactly how to proceed. The committee is consulting with legal council to determine how they could still secure that funding for next school year, including possibly holding another override vote in Ashburnham, said Chairman David Christianson Jr.

“We haven’t had 24 hours to figure it out ourselves,” Christianson said to more than 30 parents, students, and local government officials gathered at the meeting Wednesday evening.

On Tuesday, Westminster voters approved the override by an “overwhelming” margin, Christianson said. The override failed in Ashburnham by just 24 votes.

That slim margin dealt a blow to those who spent months drumming up support for the override, said Support Our Children and Schools member Natalie Nelson.

“I’m upset for the kids,” Nelson said, stressing that her organization does not endorse the adoption of a “level services” budget that would not add back teaching positions lost in recent years.

“We feel that there is need for public discussion but we feel strongly at S.O.C.S to re-certify at a lower number should be off the table,” she said.

The school committee has 15 days by state law to take action after the override failed Tuesday, Christianson said. “I feel strongly that it can’t end here,” he said.

Parents at the meeting voiced concern that Oakmont Regional High School will lose accreditation if funding isn’t secured to hire a certified librarian.

They thanked S.O.C.S for mobilizing the community to get out and vote, and decried the narrow loss in Ashburnham.

Superintendent Gary Mazzola, who said he “hasn’t seen the light of day for three months” while working on the budget, forecast problems next year if more money isn’t made available to hire additional teachers and staff.

“We had a lot of problems this year of kids not being able to get the courses they need,” Mazzola said. He said 9 classes at J. R. Briggs Elementary would have between 30 to 32 students in the fall if a “level services” budget is ultimately accepted.

“That’s brutal,” said one parent.

The School Committee will reconvene at a special meeting next week to vote on what to do next.

Gardner News: School Committee mulls options after failure of Prop. 2 1/2 overrride

Negative comments on social media after the vote are called ‘not OK’

Doneen Durling
News Correspondent

ASHBURNHAM The Ashburnham Westminster School Committee met Wednesday after a failed override attempt on Tuesday, and listened to the concerns of the parents and students from both towns, though they had little time to process the loss and offer solutions.

School Committee Chairman David Christianson told the gathering that there were options. One was to accept the level funding provided by the towns and move on.
“The other option is to bring the prioritized budget as it stands back into focus,” he said.

On Monday, Westminster voters approved a $591,279 Proposition 2 ½ tax override, 893-528.

In Ashburnham the override in the amount of $679,733 lost by a mere 24 votes, 663-687.

Christianson said that one more option is to alter and reduce the number which would require that both towns go back to their town meetings to vote on the reduction, and then bring that final figure to the ballot.

Christianson explained that the School Committee has yet to understand the process. He said if they request that Ashburnham go back to vote on the same number, they are unsure if Westminster must also repeat the process. He said legal counsel is currently looking at the process.

“We’ve never sent the same number back,” he said, “at least that’s my recollection.”

Vice Chairman Gwen Farley added, “We’ve only had 23 hours to figure it out. We are trying as fast as we can.”

Farley said the School Committee still supports the prioritized budget.

Christianson said a joint town meeting between the two towns is the last step in the process. He said if there are two rounds of an override attempt and a budget has not been agreed upon, there is an option of a joint town meeting.

“You bring all the voters that want to show up together into one place.It has happened a few times over the past 30 years.”

Whatever decision that is made at the joint meeting is final. Christianson said that the School Committee usually recommends a number. The number can be changed on the town floor.

Members of the Ashburnham Board of Selectmen were present at the School Committee meeting Wednesday, and voiced their support for trying to pass the override one more time. Former Selectman Duncan Phyfe, who is now on the Capital Planning Committee, also expressed support for another try.

One parent asked if Westminster, independent of Ashburnham, do anything to better the student-teacher ratio in Westminster only.

Christianson said, according to what he could recall from the regional agreement, Westminster could contribute extra funding for the upkeep of the building, but the instructional budget is a regional responsibility.

One student stood and said there is a saying at Oakmont.

“You get out of Oakmont what you put into it. I’ve put a lot into it and I just want to say just keep with it and don’t give up on us because we are here to fight for you too, but we need your help as well.”

Parent Kendra Steucek told the committee that social media was filled with rudeness after the override failure.

“It’s really not OK, because it causes more of a divide for our communities.” Steucek said that many of the negative comments were about the elderly.

“My elderly neighbors in my entire neighborhood … they voted for our schools, so that isn’t actually the case. I just want to say we need to be more kind to each other and ask questions and continue to support each other,” she said.

School Committee member Ellen Holmes said that the state budget is still not solidified, and there could be cuts coming from the governor. She said another problem on the horizon is Medicaid cuts proposed in the federal budget that could have significant impact on the school budget.

Ashburnham Board of Selectmen Chairman Kyle Johnson said he would ask the town administrator to post a selectmen meeting for Wednesday at the Public Safety Building at 6:30 p.m. to discuss what could be done on Ashburnham’s end.

Johnson also stated that he was pleased with the increased communication between the school district and the town.

The School Committee decided to meet Tuesday, June 27, 6:30 p.m. at Oakmont to decide the next step. Committee members fully voiced their continued support for the prioritized budget, and their intention to request the amount that would support the strategic plan.

Gardner News: Ashburnham says ‘no’

Westminster OKs override, but 2 towns must agree

Doneen Durling
News Correspondent

As a regional district, it is difficult to pass a Proposition 2 ½ tax override request, but people said what makes it most frustrating is when one town approves it while the other doesn’t. It only takes one town’s rejection to make an override null and void.

During yesterday’s override vote, Westminster approved a $591,279 override, by a vote of 893-528, a margin of 365 votes. The town had a showing of 1,422 voters at the polls.

Ashburnham rejected its $679,733 override by only 24 votes, 663-687. There were 1,350 voters who turned up at the J.R. Briggs Elementary school.

Superintendent Gary Mazzola was dismayed at the final count and said the district had worked extremely hard to lose by only 24 votes.

“It’s going to be worse when there are 32 kids in a class,” he warned. “This particular override was about restoring personnel and providing enough teachers for the kids at the high school. The fact that it was only 24 votes is a travesty.”
Mazzola said students understood what the rejection meant for them.

“I am more concerned about the low elementary grades and the high school,” he said.

Mazzola said there has been no infusion of revenue in the last decade to keep up with the needs of the district, and he predicted that it would only get worse.

“We are pretty strapped and funding hasn’t grown over 1 percent in the last 10 years,” he said.

When asked if he thought the drive for reform should be at the state level, Mazzola said state revenues are also shy of what is needed.

“Their issues are so much bigger than ours. We’re just a small community. We have to take care of our own. For a few short dollars, about 20 bucks a month, I just don’t think people would miss it. This was an organized attempt at a strategic plan that drove the budget process. Everyone knew what the money was for. We were very transparent.”

Mazzola said that along with the large class size, he was worried about the high school accreditation and the lack of teachers at the high school.

“If you think it is bad this year, wait until the following year,” he said. “We have scraped and skinned and really tried to become as transparent and efficient as possible. People buy homes in this town because they know we care about kids’ education. Who would want to buy a home when they learn there are 32 students in one classroom?”

School Committee Chair­man David Christianson said the committee will discuss the next step this evening during the School Committee meeting. He said there are a few options.

“We can accept the results of the override vote, and certify the budget that is currently funded, which is below level services. We could choose to send the same number back to Ashburnham for another vote. We could choose to change the number. I don’t think you can go up … and why would you do that … you would go down in which case both towns would have to vote.”

Christianson said that the vote could be brought to a joint town meeting, which has happened before.

“The question (Wednesday) will be do you certify what you have which is below level services? The danger is in interpreting the vote,” said Christianson.

The School Committee will meet at Overlook Middle School at 7 p.m.

Override Results: Split Vote

It is disappointing to announce that the override did not pass in both towns. It passed in Westminster and did not pass in Ashburnham.  Despite the outcome, we know members of both communities worked tirelessly to support our children and the AWRSD. Thank you so much for taking the time to ask questions, learn more about the budget process, hang signs, talk with neighbors, friends, and relatives, and vote. The School Committee will be meeting tomorrow, June 21st, to discuss the next steps for our district.

During the past few months it has been wonderful to see community members of both towns communicating, problem solving, and working together.  We hope to continue to listen, learn, and collaborate during the months to come.  Our district will continue to face issues with course offerings, large class sizes, accreditation and access to sports and clubs. We will need to work collectively to make progress and move forward.  SOCS will continue with our efforts to put pressure on the state to adequately fund our school district and hope you will be a part of this effort.

Lori, Natalie, Holly & Tiffany

Override for Schools Only One Week Away

Noon on June 19th is your last chance to submit an application for an absentee ballot to your town hall if you won’t be able to vote on the 20th.

The final push is on! We’ve put out the lawn signs and increased our Facebook posts, but we need your help with the in-person advocacy that is most effective in getting out the vote. Here’s how you can make a difference.

Stand at key locations with a “Vote Yes for Schools” sign the weekend before, the day before, or the day of the vote.

  • Click here to sign up online; look for the tabs at the bottom of your screen to choose a location.
  • You can also email one of us with the dates and times you are available.
  • We have created two “slots” for each location and time—sign up on your own or with a friend.
  • We have some signs available (one printed, a couple more homemade) or you can make your own. Email us if you need a sign.
  • Contact us for more information on the rules about where to stand.

Talk with friends, family and neighbors about when and where to vote, and why they should vote “yes.” Here are a few key talking points on how the override will help:

  • Keeps class sizes small. With no override, 12 elementary school classes will have 29-30 students each next year.
  • Staffs the libraries at our schools. Oakmont’s accreditation is at risk due to the lack of a certified librarian. Libraries at Overlook & WES/MHS schools are no longer staffed.
  • Creates enough course offerings at the high school. 250 students have no academic option for 1/4 of the school day this year.
  • Provides access to freshman basketball, homework club, & many more activities that were cut at the high/middle schools, and keeps user fees from increasing.
  • Funds 2 digital learning coaches & technology upgrades that will prepare students for college & career.

Remember, you can send residents to to calculate the impact the override will have on their estimated property tax bill for next year. The site also includes a more specific list of what the override will fund.

Thanks as always!

Natalie Nelson
Tiffany Davis
Holly Garlock
Lori Leclair

Help Needed for Get Out the Vote Campaign

As the June 20th override vote approaches, SOCS is busy planning a “get out the vote” campaign. We need your help!

  • Talk with friends, family and neighbors about when and where to vote, and why they should vote “yes.”
  • Distribute flyers at community events. Let us know when and where, and we will get a stack of flyers to you.
  • Put a “Vote Yes for Schools” sign on your lawn. We have a limited number of signs available for those who live in highly visible locations.
  • Stand at key locations with a “Vote Yes for Schools” sign, either the weekend before or the day of the vote.

Contact one of us if you can help with flyers or signs.

Holly Garlock
Natalie Nelson
Tiffany Davis
Lori Leclair

Gardner News: Tax impact tool is touted

Towns prepare for override vote

By Doneen Durling

ASHBURNHAM A Proposition 2 ½ tax over­ride is a forever commitment for taxpayers, and some people considering whether to vote for the proposal for one to support a prioritized budget on June 20 are trying to nail down a final number of what it means to them.

Natalie Nelson came to the Board of Selectmen on Monday to explain an online tool that is available to use to calculate the impact on residents of both Ashburnham and Westminster for an override for the school district.

“A Support Our Children and Schools member has created what we feel is a very effective tool,” said Nelson.

There is an effort to get the news into the community. Nelson will be at the Ashburnham Senior Center on Thursday at 11 a.m. with Superintendent Gary Mazzola to answer any questions about the school budget.

She said her organization, Support Our Children and Schools, believes strongly in face-to-face discussion.

“We believe when we learn face-to-face about the facts and have an opportunity to ask questions, there is greater learning and less rumors, and together people can find a solution,” she said.

Nelson explained that the group is looking for long-term solutions and is putting pressure on the state because of chronic underfunding.

The group, after attending many meetings and looking at data, believes the only short-term solution for having fewer classes with 30 or more students, and cuts to programs, is an override.

“That is why we have joined the School Committee in their override effort,” said Nelson.

There has been a lot of feedback indicating that an override is difficult for those living on really tight budgets.

“We want to do what we can to support Ashburnham residents in terms of how the override would affect (their) budget and also get the word out about tax relief programs because there are tax relief programs for seniors in Ashburnham,” said Nelson.

There is a prioritized budget calculator tool on the Support Our Children and Schools website that will show the impact of the override for taxpayers in both Ashburnham and Westminster. By going to, taxpayers can select which town their property is located, type in the property’s assessed value, and will see the impact of the prioritized budget proposed by the school district.

According to the online calculator, someone with a $200,000 home in Westminster would see their taxes increase from $3,748 a year (or $312.33 per month) to $3,878 ($323.17 per month), a difference of $130.08 a year (or $10.84 per month.)

Surprisingly, Ashburnham would see a greater increase. According to the calculations, someone with an assessed home value of $200,000 would see an increase from $4,558 (or $379.83 per month) to $4,768, (or $397.33 per month). The difference due to override would be $210 per year (or $17.50 per month).

Nelson said that she will help anyone that comes on Thursday to navigate the website if needed. She said the calculator also will search town records for the assessed value if someone is unsure of the assessed value of their home.

“If you type in your name or address, it will bring up for you your assessed value,” she said.

Nelson said that there is a hope people might be able to see the impact on their own budget to help them make the decision. Nelson said the impact to her own budget would be $10.89.

“In my budget, it is a lot. Everything counts so I am very sympathetic to how much … even one or two dollars makes a difference when you cut everything. At the same time, just for my home value, it is worth it to me to cut more so that I can cover that $10.89 per month so that not only my kids, but all the kids in Ashburnham Westminster can have an education that supports their learning.”

Nelson said that more than 250 people have already used the calculator. The towns will vote by ballot on June 20 to either pass or reject the override for the school district.

It’s Time We Reinvest in Our Kids & Community

Dear SOCS members,

On June 20th the citizens of Ashburnham and Westminster will go to the polls to decide if the towns should fund the School Committee’s “Prioritized Budget.” SOCS believes the answer should be “yes.”

Every Vote Counts

We share this information with you in the hope that you will talk to your family, friends and neighbors. Spread the word: it’s time we reinvest in our kids and community.

Thanks as always for your support!
Natalie, Holly, Lori & Tiffany