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Paul Feely's City Hall: Another ethics accusation makes the rounds at the school board

By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader

October 28. 2017 11:47PM




Another accusation, and another legal bill for taxpayers.

School board member Katie Desrochers raised a few eyebrows recently when she told fellow board members and the public that at-large member Rich Girard recorded a meeting in nonpublic session on Sept. 11.

“There has been a lot of talk of creating division on the board and us being, how do you say it, dysfunctional,” said Desrochers. “I try to stay away from that, but I found out that the September 11th nonpublic meeting was recorded by a board member and that there was an audio recording made of it. When I found out I was kind of sick to my stomach. I just feel like we spent an awful lot of time going after a board member at the last meeting because she made a mistake. If this person has made a mistake are we going to go after them with the same feverish pitch?”

She is referring to the discussion last month involving the release of nonpublic personnel information by at-large member Nancy Tessier in an email. That communication led board Vice Chair Art Beaudry to ask the school district’s attorney to review Tessier’s email, resulting in a letter from attorney James O’Shaughnessy, stating the Right-to-Know law and city charter were violated.

Last week, Desrochers sent a formal request to Beaudry and Mayor Ted Gatsas asking for a legal opinion on whether or not Girard is “guilty of a class B felony” or misdemeanor for recording members without their consent. Desrochers also asks for an opinion on whether Girard violated the Right-to-Know law for recording a nonpublic meeting.

For his part, Girard said he was asked serve as clerk for the nonpublic session, as regular clerk Maura Wellington was away on vacation and her substitute expressed concerns over attending a nonpublic meeting involving personnel matters because she is an employee of the district.

“I put my cellphone on the shelf in front of me, in plain view, and recorded the meeting so that I could give the audio to the clerk, which I did, along with 12 pages of notes,” said Girard. “The clerk gave me a signed receipt attesting to the fact that I gave her the audio and deleted it from my phone. Desrochers knew why I recorded the meeting because the clerk told her. She just chose to leave that out when ‘sharing’ with the board.”

Last week, Beaudry told board members he spoke with the school attorney about the matter.

“He could not see any wrongdoing,” said Beaudry. “If we are going to spend money for a written opinion, that’s up to this board. I would hope the verbal opinion is enough.”

“I would request a legal opinion,” said Desrochers. “When you say that it was addressed, I’m not sure it was addressed. I had very specific questions, and I did not receive a verbal opinion from the attorney. When another board member had an indiscretion, that went right to the attorney without a vote from the board. This is a very antagonistic election cycle, and people’s names are being dragged through the mud.”

“I think we need to put this stuff to bed and stop it,” said Ward 10’s John Avard. “I’m tired of this. We’re supposed to be here for students, supposed to be here for the good of the district.”

“I’m tired of spending money for arguments within this board, when we should be spending money focusing on students and having our discussions focusing on student achievement instead of about each other,” said Erika Connors of Ward 8. “This isn’t about us as individual people. This is about the student and that’s what we are elected to deal with.”

“We just continue talking about things that have nothing to do with students,” said Gatsas. “Let’s just stop and move along.”

Board members voted 8-3 to request a written legal opinion on Girard’s actions. Voting in favor were Ambrogi, Want, Bergeron, Tessier, Terrio, Avard, Desrochers and Van Houten. Opposed were Langton, Freeman, and Beaudry, with Girard, Connors and Gatsas abstaining. Mary Georges of Ward 3 was absent.

“Everyone who thinks this is cute, I don’t think it’s cute,” said Gatsas. “Not at all. We need to stop this. We spent 22 minutes on an issue that had nothing to do with education.”

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Late last week, Girard called the request from Desrochers “another baseless personal attack that has nothing to do with governing the district or educating kids,” and said he wasn’t surprised at the vote by the full board.

“My reaction? I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” wrote Girard in an email. “Those who voted to investigate again showed themselves for what they are. The investigation will confirm I did nothing wrong. While I hope the findings will be released before the election, I think it’s too bad that scarce taxpayer dollars will be wasted on yet another personal and political vendetta perpetuated by petty people who apparently have nothing better to do.”

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When a new school board is seated in January, members will have a list of goals waiting for them — established by the current board.

The current Board of School Committee voted last week to approve five goals to accomplish “in a manner that takes into consideration the district, its students and all of its stakeholders.”

The goals include:

Creating a budget that fully funds the needs of the district and makes it competitive with surrounding districts,

• Redistrict to reduce class size and free up funds for better use,

• Reduce class sizes to no more than 22 students in K-2, and no more than 25 in grades 3-12,

• Build up the expendable trust funds to a minimum of 15 percent of the operating budget,

• And create or adopt a districtwide unified math curriculum.

While the goals were OK’d by the current board, they also apply to anyone elected to office Nov. 7 — essentially, a set of marching orders for new members.

The idea of officials with roughly two months left in their terms telling new members how to run the district didn’t sit well with some on the board, or Mayor Gatsas.

“I think that maybe it’s time to acknowledge that we’re a little late on this one, start this with the new board when it gets seated and let the new board tackle it from there ...,” said Committeeman John Avard of Ward 10.

“I began to see this as the committee preparing the next board, establishing the idea that we will have goals, whether they are this board or the next,” said Connie Van Houten, Ward 12.

“I appreciate the work that everybody did, but I think it’s pretty clear that in two months there’s a new board coming,” said Gatsas. “Why are we establishing what their goals should be? It doesn’t make any sense.”

A motion to table the goals failed, with only Gatsas, Freeman, Girard and Avard favoring the tabling.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.



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