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May 08. 2014 8:43PM

Councilors say flood of calls preceded vote on new education board member


BILL DUNCAN 

CONCORD — Bill Duncan will take his seat on the state Board of Education, despite an aggressive lobbying campaign against his appointment by charter school advocates, home-schoolers, Common Core opponents and the state Republican Party.

The Executive Council on Thursday confirmed Duncan in a 3-2 vote along party lines, with Democratic councilors Chris Pappas of Manchester, Debora Pignatelli of Nashua, and Colin Van Ostern of Concord supporting Gov. Maggie Hassan’s nomination of the education activist and former Executive Council candidate.

Republican councilors Chris Sununu of Newfields and Joe Kenney of Wakefield voted against the nomination. Duncan ran against Sununu for the District 3 council seat in 2012.

The retired Seacoast businessman has been a vocal supporter of traditional public schools as founder of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education, and has been active in support of the Common Core State Standards.

He sued the state last year, challenging the constitutionality of a state law that allows business education tax credits to fund scholarships to private and religious schools, and to assist families that home-school their children.

A Strafford County Superior Court judge sided with Duncan; the appeal is now pending before the state Supreme Court.

“Bill’s background in business and education will bring a valuable perspective to the Board of Education, and I applaud the Executive Council for today’s vote,” Hassan said.

Each of the five councilors commented on the volume of constituent phone calls and e-mails received, both for and against Duncan’s nomination.

“I’ve received more than 100 phone calls about this nomination, more than in my entire term up to this point,” Sununu said. “It really showed me that across the state, not just in my district, there are people who are really galvanized against a lot of things he’s said.”

Opponents of Duncan’s nomination had distributed a flier with some of his more controversial quotes, such as, “Charter schools are a political statement not an educational improvement.”

“I brought a lot of the quotes to him,” said Sununu, “and he said they were all very accurate.”

Van Ostern, speaking in support of Duncan, called him a “real champion of public schools,” and said his position on charter schools has been misconstrued.

“He’s visited four different charter schools in the past month, and it’s clear to me that he sees they have an important role to play in cooperation with other public schools in the state,” said Van Ostern. “I don’t think he’s a champion or an enemy of charter schools, which is appropriate for the Board of Education in the state.”

Charles M. Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a conservative policy group, said Duncan’s personal views on education policy are not the issue. He said Hassan could have nominated someone with the same views, but not the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state now before the state’s highest court.

“As a matter of policy, we should not appoint plaintiffs of ongoing lawsuits to oversee the area of state policy over which they are suing,” he said. “That is what ought to disqualify Mr. Duncan, not the views he and I don’t share.”

North Country councilor Kenney said Duncan was “highly qualified, and an outstanding citizen, veteran, business leader and someone concerned about education.”

“But I think he has burned too many bridges when it comes to educational options in New Hampshire,” said Kenney. “I’m fearful Mr. Duncan will create polarization on the board that doesn’t need to happen.”

By next fall, more than 4,000 New Hampshire students will be attending charter schools.

They operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools but agree to a five-year, renewable charter establishing accountability to the state Board of Education. They usually have a particular emphasis, like science or fine arts.

If a student is accepted into a charter school, the state per-pupil education grant follows that student to the charter school.

Pignatelli addressed that in her comments. “The problem in this state is that we don’t fund education in traditional public schools at the amount we should, and the fear is that when you start to siphon off some of the money to another school, innovative as it may be, you are depriving most of the children of the education they deserve.”

Pappas said he spoke to Duncan at length on the issue, and found him to be reasonable and driven by facts, not ideology. “We had some important conversations about charter schools and he gave me his commitment that he supports these schools and will work to build bridges with these parents and these schools.”

Duncan thanked the council for its support, and suggested he may surprise his critics.

“I’m anxious to get to work in support of New Hampshire public schools, including charter schools,” he said.dsolomon@unionleader.com


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