NASHUA — Nashua's Board of Education sat down to a plate of traditional school issues this week, including a new contract for the superintendent and the kindergarten enrollment policy, but members backed away from the table when it came to a land use issue involving businesses that serve alcohol near schools.
Board members voted 5-2 to approve a new contract that raises Superintendent Mark Conrad's salary 1½ percent this year to $140,604. Conrad will receive an additional 1½ percent raise next year and take home $142,716.
"He deserves more than we are giving him," said board member Kimberly Muise, adding that Conrad has shown good leadership.
Board member William Mosher also voted for the new contract without reservation.
"I have never seen anyone so on top of the district," said Mosher. "He has constantly been right there, on top of everything."
Chairman Robert Hallowell said finding a good superintendent is a challenge and he wished Nashua had a 20-year contract with Conrad so the city could "lock him up."
Even board members who voted against the contract praised Conrad.
Sandra Ziehm said the problem isn't the superintendent, it's the economy.
"As a small business owner, I don't spend money that I don't have," she said. "I think we are violating that principle."
Ziehm later added that she was discouraged by the latest enrollment numbers that show some classes inching their way up toward 30 students.
"When you go into a classroom and see 29 students, no para-professionals and one teacher, I get concerned about small amounts of money," she said. "It's all about resources."
Dennis Ryder, chair of the Finance and Operations Committee, did not object to the raises, but he voted against the contract because of the retirement annuity.
"I highly respect Mr. Conrad, I think he is an outstanding individual," he said, adding that the superintendent has an "enormous brain."
Still, Ryder said the retirement benefit set a new precedent.
"Salaries are one thing, annuities are another," he said.
Board members David Murotake and Elizabeth Van Twuyver did not attend Monday night's meeting.
The board also approved a change in the kindergarten enrollment policy that will offer some flexibility to families who have children who are ready for school but are locked out because of a late-fall birthday.
Children who are 5 years old by September 30 are eligible to enroll in the district's kindergarten program. Now, children who turn 5 on or before October 31 can apply for early admission.
Each child in line for early admission will be assessed on a case-by-case basis by the district.
Although some members wondered if schools would see a wave of requests for early enrollment, the change was recommended by the Policy Committee, led by Thomas Vaughan, and approved unanimously by the board.
Board members seemed less at ease with a request from the Board of Aldermen to weigh in on a proposed ordinance that would keep any business or establishment that serves alcohol from locating within 500 feet of a school.
Proposed by Alderman Lori Wilshire and co-sponsored by Diane Sheehan, the new law is meant to protect students from being harassed or harmed by adults who have had too much to drink. The ordinance would also keep Nashua's Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 483 from moving into the old Crowne Hill Fire Station next to the Norman Crisp Elementary School.
Hallowell's initial reaction was to send the proposal to a subcommittee for review, but board members seemed uncertain whether to take that step.
"This isn't the type of issue we normally deal with," Hallowell said several times.
Other members suggested the ordinance wasn't an appropriate issue for the Board of Education.
"This board is supposed to be discussing educational issues, not land use," said Mosher.
Board members questioned if there was any evidence of past conflicts due to alcohol being served in school neighborhoods. Several members said the VFW typically draws an older, quiet crowd and the organization's plan to move to the old fire station would rehabilitate an old city building.
Ryder suggested that the nine board members would probably have nine different opinions on the proposal and the need for a new law.
Sheehan, who was at the Board Of Education meeting, said that as property changes hands, there is the potential for alcohol near schools to become a problem. That concern triggered the idea that a policy would be the best way to head off any conflicts.
"I didn't feel comfortable about making a policy decision without getting your feedback," Sheehan told the board.
The board ultimately decided to submit its thoughts in writing to Hallowell, who will compile a list of comments and send it to the aldermen.
Ziehm later acknowledged that while she didn't initially have any feelings about the ordinance, framing it as a health and safety issue refocuses the discussion.
"We have an obligation to protect the safety of our children," she said.