Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Valley News Writes an Article about Jim.

Jim and I have been fighting for education reform and education spending reform for about 7 1/2 years now this is the most fair and most complete article we have seen written about us in that time. It is so nice to see a reporter without an agenda and one that just reports the facts. I will be kudos to Alex Hanson and the Valley News. I will let the story stand on its own without commentary.

Spelling errors, grammar errors, misuse of homonyms and typos are left an exercise for my readers.

The following piece appeared on the Valley News.

Unlikely Member of the Board
By Alex Hanson
Valley News Staff Writer
At Croydon's annual School District meeting in March, Jim Peschke took a firm stance against the school budget, urging his fellow citizens to vote it down.

Peschke also opposed an amendment to add $5,000 to the budget so the Croydon Village School could afford to send its pupils to the library and the skating rink in neighboring Newport.

“This amendment's definitely going in the wrong direction,” Peschke said. “We need to find ways to cut the spending and keep the taxes to a reasonable level,” he added. Peschke voted against the amendment and against the budget, both of which were approved by sizable margins.

If he had been sitting among the public, Peschke would have been a mere gadfly -- a smart, articulate and persistent opponent of higher spending on education. But he was sitting at the front of the room with the other two members of the Croydon School Board, a position that gives him an unusual platform for his message.

Elected last year, Peschke, 43, is perhaps the most unlikely school board member in the Upper Valley, if not in the Twin States. He oversees a public school, but his wife, Cathy Peschke, home-schools their two children. He was a tax-fighting libertarian before moving to Croydon a few years ago, and Cathy Peschke writes a blog that regularly takes to task school spending, teachers' unions and the Obama administration.

His presence on the School Board has produced consternation among Croydon parents and school supporters who don't quite know what to make of either Peschke's views or his vehemence.

“I don't know a lot about Jim other than that he doesn't want the taxes to get raised and that he's going to cut whatever he thinks needs to be cut,” said Kim McKinney, a Croydon resident with two school-age children.

But Peschke has galvanized those residents who want above all to see their property tax bills go down and who felt as if their views had gone unheard. And as the chairman of a committee about to start reassessing the decade-old agreement under which Newport educates Croydon children in grades four through 12, he is in a position to influence the district's future.

Above all, he has brought a wider debate about education taxes and policy to an unlikely place -- a small town with a one-room school.

“It's like they're taking a battle to Croydon that doesn't exist here,” said George Caccavaro, chairman of the Croydon School Board.

As anyone who has ever sat in on a local school board meeting can attest, most board members are parents of children in the school the board oversees.

“It becomes the norm, because they have the most vested interest,” said Winton Goodrich, associate director of the Vermont School Boards Association. Vermont has 1,488 school board members, and Goodrich estimated that there were only three or four home-schooling parents among that number. (The New Hampshire School Boards Association did not return messages left at its office in Concord.)

Peschke's status as a home-schooling parent and a vocal opponent of school spending cuts both ways.

“He has no stake in the final product, as far as what we offer in the Croydon School District,” Caccavaro said. “Sometimes, I think he looks at our public education program just as a taxpayer.”

But Croydon resident Dave Shackett, who spoke up during the annual meeting to suggest the town study whether to close its school and send all of its children to Newport, said he likes having Peschke on the School Board. “My position on the man is that I'm so glad that someone is finally on the School Board who doesn't have his children in the school,” and is willing to cut spending, Shackett said in an interview.

Peschke is aware of how supporters of higher school feel about him, and he's unrepentant. “It's been hinted,” he said, “that I have no right to be on the board because I have no plan to send my children to public school.” His response? “You can strip me of my say if you're willing to relieve me of my tax liability.”

But Peschke said he also hears from people who cheer him on, who felt their opinions were being disregarded. “That is wonderful motivation,” Peschke said.

Caccavaro, who is in his eighth year on the School Board, is a public education veteran. His wife teaches in Newport and his father is the longtime business manager of the Mascoma Valley Regional School District and was on the Claremont School Board. Still, he said having Peschke on the board adds a dimension to its deliberations. “I respect where he's coming from. He's a voice that hasn’t been heard at least since I’ve been there.”

Which is not to say that it's easy to sit next to Peschke at meetings. At first, Caccavaro said he took Peschke's views personally, but now takes them more in stride.

“My approach has been, it can either be a constant battle … or we can decide to work together,” Caccavaro said.

Peschke spoke out against school taxes when he and his family moved to Croydon in 2007, but the battle began in earnest in March 2009, when he won a School Board seat over a write-in candidate. Just days after his election, Peschke led a successful drive to cut the school budget by more than $65,000. (Initially, he proposed a cut of $132,000, but scaled it back.) Croydon's yearly school spending broke $1 million just a few years ago, and is now around $1.3 million.

But the budget cuts didn't work quite as planned. Even at the 2009 meeting, Caccavaro explained that the cuts to items such as tuition and services in School Administrative Unit 43, which covers Croydon, Newport and Sunapee, couldn't be made. Instead, the budget cuts affected Croydon's own school, which this year serves 27 pupils in grades K through three.

“He really just made more or less blind cuts,” said Matt Wittasek, a Croydon resident who ran as a write-in candidate against Peschke last year. “When it came down to it,” said Wittasek, whose wife won election to the School Board this year, “a lot of those areas were justified or required by law.”

Croydon's little red school was forced to cut staffing. The head teacher doubled as a special education teacher, Wittasek said, and classroom aides were cut. Wittasek proposed the $5,000 increase in the school budget at this year's meeting after talking with families in town about the school's needs.

As the last working one-room school in the state, and one of the last in the country, the Croydon Village School is a point of pride for residents. An image of it adorns the signs at the entrances to the village on Route 10, and aside from the Town Hall, which the school uses part-time, it is the only public building at the village center.

The turnabout at this year's meeting -- at which the amendment to increase the school budget passed overwhelmingly -- is a sign that the town is engaged in debate and political action on education, at least about Croydon's small school. “We tried to do more work this year,” before the annual meeting, Wittasek said of parents and other school supporters.

The atmosphere at the most recent Croydon School Board meeting, on April 14, attested to the increased tension. Peschke peppered school officials with questions. He was polite, even self-deprecating, but insistent. During a lengthy conversation about the school's math textbook, Peschke made clear where his allegiances lie, with parents and against the state and other higher authorities.

“I couldn't give a hoot in hell about the NECAPs,” he said about the New England Common Assessment Program, the school testing designed by New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island to measure student progress. The acronym is pronounced “knee-cap.”

“Would you be satisfied if we have third-graders bomb the NECAP,” he said, but develop a solid grounding in math?

School officials use the NECAP results to see how their kids are doing, said Marilyn Brannigan, interim superintendent for schools in Newport, Croydon and Sunapee. The math textbooks, which have frustrated parents, aren't the problem, she said. “We as educators aren't helping our children learn sufficiently,” she said.

The discussion was intense, but participants professed themselves pleased to be talking about education. “That's my biggest frustration in eight years on the School Board is that all we talk about is money,” Caccavaro said.

When Peschke started on the board, meetings weren't always so collegial.

“Marilyn Brannigan and I don't argue as loudly as we used to,” Peschke said later. But that doesn't mean Peschke is starting to see things the way his fellow school officials do. Everyone is frustrated with mandates and requirements handed down by state and federal law, but Peschke seems eager to buck the regulations.

“I certainly get the urge sometimes, because I think the whole system is rotten to the core,” he said. Being on the School Board hasn't softened his stance on the issues he holds dear, or made him look more kindly on public schooling. “If anything, I have less respect for how things are done than ever before,” he said.

Morals often come up in conversation with Jim and Cathy Peschke about their views on education.

“Forcing one person to bear the burden of educational costs for another is not only a moral question but a major threat to personal liberty,” Cathy Peschke wrote on March 14 on the blog she maintains under the banner of Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes. The Peschkes founded CRAFT in Harvard, Ill., to fight a referendum to build a new school and subsequent votes to raise school taxes. When they moved to Croydon in 2007, they started a new blog, called Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes-Croydon (

When they started CRAFT, in 2003, the Peschkes were fed up with frequent votes on school spending and tax increases. “I told myself, ‘If they do this again, I'm going to do something about it,' ” Jim Peschke said in an interview.

When CRAFT entered the political fray in Illinois, “What was surprising to me was how many ordinary people were waiting in the wings,” he said.

What troubles Peschke the most about public education in general is “poor value. They spend too much and we get too little,” he said.

The remedy for this state of affairs, Peschke said, is to put parents in control of their children's education. Parents should be able to choose how and where their children are educated. Families without the means to pay for schooling would be issued vouchers.

“The government would support you, and you'd still get to choose,” Peschke said. “I consider it a fundamental civil rights issue” that parents aren't able to make such choices today. If public schools were forced to compete on a level playing field (that is, without government backing and mandates), the cost of education would decrease dramatically, he said.

Cathy Peschke expresses this idea another way on their blog: “Education is a privilege not a right. The only right one has when it comes to education is the right of a parent to educate their own children as they see fit.”

“I completely and wholeheartedly agree with her on that point,” Jim Peschke said. Children don't have a right to an education, he said; their parents have a right to pursue an education on their behalf.

The Peschkes chose to home-school for a variety of reasons, one of which was clear during an interview in White River Junction. Peschke, his 5-year-old daughter Anastasia in tow, had driven up to have lunch with some former colleagues. During the interview after lunch, Anastasia took some work out of her backpack and started in on it, without prompting. Home-schooling allows her to follow her interests, Peschke said.

“We do more or less what we want. That's the point,” he said. “If today she wants to learn geology and tomorrow she wants to learn math, that's what we do, and we get a lot more value out of that.”

As she does most days, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, with her 2-year-old down for a nap, Cathy Peschke put her beliefs about education into practice.

“What is salt?” she asked Anastasia.

“Sodium and chlorine,” Anastasia said.

“It's a molecule, right?”

Anastasia nodded.

Spread out on the Peschkes' dining room table were science and reading books that form part of Anastasia's curriculum, a tumbler of water and an egg, and two other glasses, one containing water, the other, cooking oil.

With the egg and the tumbler of water, they perform an experiment, adding salt to the water by spoonfuls until the egg is suspended in the center of the tumbler. “How many tablespoons of salt did it take?” Peschke asks. “Four!” Anastasia replies.

Before the Peschkes adopted their children, Anastasia and Alexander, Cathy Peschke worked as an audiologist. The Peschkes started fighting taxes around the time they were married, in 2002. They decided they would home-school soon after.

“My children, my responsibility,” she said. “I really don't think it's the community’s responsibility to educate my children.” Further, “I also think I can provide a better education than the public schools.”

Anastasia was reading the alphabet at 18 months, Cathy Peschke said. “Her ability to learn is limited only by the minds of the people around her,” she said. She estimates that home-schooling materials (which she gets from a private school the Peschkes declined to name) cost around “a thousand bucks a year.” As for her time educating her kids, “My time is nothing,” she said.

On a nearby counter, her black laptop computer sat open. She doesn't post to the blog as often as she used to, but she is still pretty prolific.

Her blog posts sometimes seem better suited to a larger advocacy organization than to a small-town homeschooler. The top of the blog features a pair of citations: “What luck for rulers that men do not think.” And, “Academies that are founded at public expense are instituted not so much to cultivate men's natural abilities as to restrain them.” The latter is Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century rationalist philosopher; the former, Adolf Hitler. On the blog, Cathy Peschke is fond of calling public schools “Taxpayer Funded Socialist Indoctrination Centers.” She also blogged live from a Tea Party rally in Manchester last month.

In her view, the temperature of her rhetoric makes no difference. “If people are against taxation, it's not going to matter to them,” she said

But the harsh language has alienated some Croydon residents, who said they don't understand what the Peschkes are doing.

“We're confused about what his motives are, moving to this small town,” Christine Almstrom, head of the Croydon PTO, said from behind a bake-sale table at the School District meeting.

Jim Peschke said he and Cathy chose Croydon after drawing up a list of the qualities they wanted in a place to raise their kids. A small town, a good job market, a more welcoming political climate. They found a house in Croydon, and Peschke, who is trained as an engineer for nuclear power plants, found a job at Dimatix, a leading provider of inkjet printheads, in Lebanon. He was laid off in January, but found a position as a contractor for KMC, a firm in Merrimack that makes medical devices.

Although the Peschkes are libertarians, they are not part of the Free State movement, a wave of libertarians who moved to New Hampshire in recent years, Peschke said.

Jim Peschke's presence on the School Board comes at an important moment for Croydon.

For over 40 years, the Croydon Village School has had a close relationship with Newport schools, and for the past 10 years, they have had a binding contract under which Croydon agrees to send children to Newport and Newport agrees to accept them.

This year the deal comes up for reconsideration. If the two parties decided to do nothing, the agreement would simply continue indefinitely. Under state law, there's a lengthy process for considering whether to continue or to end the agreement. Peschke made his feelings clear in an interview before he was named last month to chair the committee that will study the agreement.

“I would like to see Croydon leave the AREA agreement with Newport,” he said. Croydon parents should be able to choose the school they send their children to, he said, adding, “I can think of no morally defensible reason why they shouldn't be able to do so.”

Peschke said he was expecting and hoping to be put on the committee studying the AREA agreement. “There are many people who want us to maintain the monopoly agreement with Newport,” he said.

A reason for that is one that Peschke holds dear -- cost.

Although Peschke asserted that Newport is “where most of the waste is” in his town's school spending, Caccavaro said he doesn't think Croydon can get a better deal anywhere else. “It’s not going to be cheaper any other way we do it,” he said.

Croydon has only 98 schoolchildren, which doesn't provide the town with a lot of leverage. In the deregulated marketplace Peschke imagines, there would be more options for Croydon parents that might also benefit Croydon taxpayers.

The reconsideration of the agreement with Newport is a lengthy process, and Peschke's term on the School Board ends in 2012. “They will have a candidate fielded,” he said of his opponents.

Peschke might even step down if he feels the schools are too resistant to change. “If I sense a general futility in making substantive changes, I won't bother spinning my wheels,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3219.

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