HINSDALE, N.H. -- The Hinsdale School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to fully support its after-school program and fight for its continuance nearly a month after one board member suggested converting it to a fee-based system.
Board member Angela Schill, who questioned whether locals can afford the Hinsdale After School Program, asked at a School Board meeting on Dec. 12 if it could be funded by fees instead of tax dollars. The suggestion sparked a debate throughout the town and brought dozens of citizens to the district offices behind the high school for a school board meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 9.
School Board Chairwoman Holly Kennedy said Wednesday's meeting also included discussion on an e-mail sent by HASP Director Maryanne O'Malley. The e-mail states O'Malley was told Schill called a 21st Century grant director in Concord and both asked questions about HASP and expressed opinions about it. The School Board voted to initiate an investigation into Schill's phone call. Kennedy said the impartial investigation will be carried out by an investigative unit of the board's attorney firm, Drummond Woodsum.
Hinsdale School Superintendent Dr. David Crisafulli defended the program when Schill called it into question in December and said recent studies show what sort of risks children come across between 3 and 6 p.m. He said HASP has done a tremendous job in reducing the number of "latchkey kids" in Hinsdale.
After a PowerPoint presentation by O'Malley, numerous residents and parents stood up during the meeting's public comments portion to voice their opinions on the matter and ask for some clarifications about the program's financing.
O'Malley explained HASP is federally funded through a 21st Century grant that is set to expire on June 30. She said HASP includes numerous enrichment programs, including a drama club, as well as a homework club, which she said is probably the most important program. Teachers are paid a stipend for each club they run.
O'Malley said the homework club, which has nutritional snacks provided by The Abbey Group, is monitored by teachers and parents. She said teacher surveys indicate that 59 percent of regular HASP attendees turn in their homework on time.
She then turned the floor over to Sean Leary, a father of two children that have utilized the program. He told the audience the money will be spent one way or another -- either up front on the program or down the road on recovery and rehabilitation for youngsters who get into bad habits because they did not have the program.
He said latchkey kids are more likely to get involved with drugs, alcohol and tobacco, making a supervised safe haven that much more important.
Leary also had a bone to pick with Schill, who at the Dec. 12 meeting told Crisafulli the studies he cited were subjective. Leary said "every study has the same result" -- that towns with an after-school program see huge decrease in usage of tobacco products, alcohol and marijuana. He said Hinsdale does not have much going on and he cannot understand why anyone would want to oppose HASP the way it operates now.
He also said he has never spoken to parents who don't think program should be funded with tax dollars, as Schill had claimed.
Crisafulli previously said HASP is currently in the budget as a line item for about $75,000 (with another $15,000 that could be raised in revenue), but budget talks are still in their infancy. If the program was funded only by those who utilize it, fees would be based on their children's free-or-reduced-lunch status. Children who do not qualify for free-or-reduced lunches will be charged $70 a day if they use both the morning and afternoon programs.
Resident Dodie Bevis wanted to know how many teachers were involved with HASP. O'Malley told her there were 15 to 20, as well as volunteers. Bevis said she is not opposed to the program but isn't sure why her taxes should fund it.
"I'm thinking back to when my kids were in school -- that's 30 years ago -- no one worried about my child after school. If I wasn't home to take care of my kids, I hired a babysitter or I got a relative to take care of them. What is so different about today?" she asked.
Bevis, who was informed that many more Hinsdale families live below the poverty line nowadays and there are more at-risk youngsters, said there are options.
"I think that happened back then, too. But my children worked on a farm. But they never did have to work on a farm -- we gave them a job to do. I know there's not as many jobs now, I understand that, but I'm wondering, as a senior citizen, why do I have to pay for babysitters," she said, prompting cries of "They are not babysitters!" from the crowd.
With the room still buzzing from Bevis' comment, Misty Hall stood up to defend the program. She said she is a mother of four and her husband is often deployed to other countries for long periods of time. She said HASP isn't about babysitting or parents not being able to care for their children but rather about a support network for adults who cannot get off work when school ends.
Theresa Attas-Wright followed Hall. She said she is the single mother of a special-needs student and has no relatives in the area. Attas-Wright said her husband died of cancer in October and does not know what she would do without HASP.
Hinsdale Selectman Jay Ebbighausen, who was sitting in the audience, was told the school budget was $12 million. He said the $75,000 to $90,000 to run HASP is less than 1 percent of that figure.
"You guys, historically, return more than $100,000 a year to the town. I know you can't budget it this way but basically you'd be funding this program off the surplus that you're giving back to the town," he said. "Just put it in that perspective. It's not that bad.
Grace Johnson stood up and identified herself as a junior at Hinsdale High School. She said she both babysits and volunteers with HASP. She said she babysits for the money but all HASP volunteers donate their time for the sake of the children.
"It's about pointing them in the direction they need to be involved and active citizens," she said. "We want them to go in the right direction and if they have no one helping them, they're not going to know what to do -- they're going to go off the shows they watch on TV and that isn't what we want."
The public discussion continued for a while before the board voted to support HASP and see to it that it continues. Kennedy said that vote will be kept in mind for future budget talks.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. Follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.