Each year the graduating class at Londonderry High School raises money to leave a gift to the high school. This year’s class wants to make a major gift in the form of a new sign in front of the high school to replace the one that has been there for at least two decades. The catch is that they hope to have it be an electronic sign, but such signs are not allowed under current town rules.
Councilors heard a presentation from the students, got public comment and then explored paths that the class could take to get potential approval for an electronic sign. Class President Jeff Cieslikowski led the student presentation which described the limitations of the current sign and the benefits of an electronic sign.
The current sign uses physical letters that must be manually removed and replaced to change the message presented. It takes 2-3 hours per message change and 400-600 hours total per year, time and expense that is absorbed by the school district. Doing so requires standing on a board supported by cinder blocks which was described as a safety concern. Getting to the sign in the winter is especially challenging with snow on the ground.
Because of the effort required to change the message, the message is not changed very often which limits the number of messages that can be displayed even when there is more information that the high school would like to convey.
Cieslikowski described the type of sign they envision as being like what is there now, but with the message area replaced by an electronic sign with LED-lit lettering and background. In contrast to the existing sign, the messages could be changed as frequently as desired by the high school administration. Changes would be made remotely using a password-protected, Internet-connected application. Messages could also be for a town-wide audience, not just those related to the high school. The sign would be like what exists at Pinkerton Academy and Windham High School.
The new sign would cost $20,000. The Class of 2018 has already raised $15,000 through fundraising. The grounds and maintenance department would contribute $3,000 since they spend significantly more than that on making manual changes today. The remaining $2,000 would come from additional fundraising. No student class dues would contribute to the sign since these were used to offset costs for events like the prom and the senior class trip.
Public comment on the proposed sign was generally supportive, however, a few people expressed concerns that allowing an electronic sign at the high school when they are banned elsewhere in town could set an indefensible precedent. How would the town say no to a business or other organization when it was allowed on town property? This was the position of resident Kathy Wagner who described it as “a big can or worms.” Councilor Dolan also expressed a similar opinion.
The issue of electronic signs has been debated in the past and many people fear that allowing them would negatively impact the character of the town. Cieslikowski and Principal Jason Parent stressed that the sign they had in mind would have simple one-color lettering on a black background and not flashing colors, moving text or video as can be seen in other towns. They were also willing to limit sign changes to once per day.
At the prompting of Chairman Farrell, Richard Canuel of the building and zoning department shared that there are three gas stations in town that have electronic signs to display gas prices. Approval was granted by getting a variance from the ZBA.
Other comments focused on the process that had been followed in starting with the Town Council instead of going to the Heritage Commission and then the Planning Board. Art Rugg, Vide Chair of the Heritage Commission and Chair of the Planning Board was in attendance and invited the group to attend the next Heritage Committee meeting on May 10.
Public and Council sentiment was largely positive, even from those with reservations on the process. The discussion turned toward the best path forward to get approval. Councilor Dolan suggested using the variance process with the ZBA. After discussion among the Council, Chairman Farrell took the action to talk to the Town Manager and Town Attorney to determine the best path forward.
Students presenting at the council were Jeff Cieslikowski – Class President, Carina Pento – Vice Class President, Shannon Fraser – Class Secretary, Luke Wyman – Class Treasurer, Jill Doris – Prom Chair, Jackie Baumann – Prom Chair, Joseph Hernandez – Activities Coordinator, Luke Cava – Activities Coordinator and Aidan Crowley – Historian. Also, on hand were their class advisors, teachers Rebecca Peabody and Erin Donovan. All Council members and public commenters praised the quality of the presentation given by the high school students.