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February 14. 2013 11:25PM

Hooksett policy under fire for limiting discussion between board, teachers

HOOKSETT - A Hooksett policy which bars school board members from holding "official communications" with teachers in the district has turned some heads.

The issue first came up at the school board's Feb. 5 meeting. In the weeks prior, board member David Pearl sent an email out to teachers asking for their thoughts on overhead projectors. Board Chair Trisha Korkosz gave a statement at the meeting noting the inquiry was not an official board action, and that such communications must be directed through the superintendent, according to board policy. She also noted that some teachers felt "uncomfortable" with the inquiry.

That policy, called HBC, reads: "all official communications, policies, and directives of employee interest and concern will be communicated to employee members through the Superintendent, and the Superintendent will employ all such media as are appropriate to keep employees fully informed of the Board's problem, concerns and actions."

Pearl made a motion to remove the word "communications" from the policy, allowing board members to solicit information from the teachers while keeping directives in the hands of the administration.

"I find it almost ironic that I can read articles about what teachers feel at other schools, but by our own policies am prohibited to discuss these issues with the people that teach our own children, and by which we create policies for," he said at that meeting.

The motion failed in a 2-2 vote. Board member Cheryl Akstin opposed the motion, believing it was a question for the policy committee. Korkosz, however, said the policy is necessary in principle to keep distance between board members and teachers on school issues.

"They could feel intimidated by a school board member by the mere fact that they're a school board member and they make policies for the district," she said. "And if they end up having a labor dispute with the district, we're the board that hears it, because we're a quasi-judicial board."

Pearl has continued to speak out against the policy, saying, "I think it's such a broad term that it includes essentially everything."

He has written about the policy on his blog, Hooksett Issues. Pearl said that the information he received from the teachers was "very valuable" and he was able to "strike up a rapport" with several of the teachers, but he ceased communicating with them since learning of the policy. He also noted that he intends to "implement the policy to the letter" in the future and "bring it to the attention of the board" when that policy is broken.

The policy, as is the case with most of the district's policies, originated as a draft put out by the NH School Board Association.

"The general intent of the policy is to have any official board action communicated to the staff through the proper, appropriate, administrative channels," Barrett Christina of the NHSBA. "I suppose a stricter, narrow reading of the word communication could be seen to limit any type of communication among board members and staff members."

Christina noted that such a reading can have unintended consequences, such as with a board member who has a child in the district.

General discussions on district policy are not necessarily meant to be prohibited.

"The intent is not to limit any and all communication between staff members and board members," he said. "Certainly in towns all across New Hampshire, people are in the same community and their kids go to school together and they're going to run into one another and, human nature being what it is, certainly some sort of communication is going to relate to the school district. That's normal, I don't think there's anything problematic with that."

In Christina's view, however, any more official interaction becomes problematic.

"If we do what we can to put policies and procedures in place that at least establish some protocol for how these communications are going to be conveyed and relayed, I think that that's a better practice to have it go through the administration."

Speaking of labor relations and employment actions, he said "there are concerns that if an individual board member sent out, say, a survey, soliciting feedback form the teachers, and it's not clear (whether or not) it's an official board action, there are questions among staff members relative to their obligation to respond."

Employees may also question whether their response would have any impact on their employment status. These concerns, Christina noted, could potentially lead to grievances or an unfair labor practice complaint.

Pearl said his email simply invited teachers to "feel free" to "share their thoughts" with him, but that he also saw no reason to have a policy which barred something closer to an actual survey.

"I got responses from 24 people. I didn't get responses from the other people, and that's fine. There's no obligation," he said. "The teachers should understand the relationship. They should understand that we're not their bosses."

When asked if some protocol could be instituted which might mitigate these issues, such as a form paragraph detailing teacher obligations with an inquiry, Christina responded that it was possible but had not yet given the idea "full consideration." He also noted that the NHSBA "more than happy" to work with the board to review amend the language of the policy.


bclogston@newstote.com


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