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Timberlane officials look to move past rule controversy

Union Leader Correspondent

April 07. 2014 9:47PM

PLAISTOW — Now that the Timberlane Regional School Board has adopted revised language for its board rules, Chairman Nancy Steenson said she is hoping the board and the community can move forward in a positive manner.

Controversy erupted on March 20, when the board voted 7-2 to adopt rules governing the behavior of the board. Rule 7 stated that “all decisions made by the board will be supported by all board members regardless of how a member voted.”

Rule 8 stated that all communications to the press will be provided by the board chairman and that all board members contacted by the press will not comment and direct the press to contact the chairman.

In the wake of the vote, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union stated that it was considering possible legal action against the School Board for what it considered unconstitutional restrictions on how board members can speak and act.

The NHCLU and the School Board’s legal counsel worked on new language for the two rules, and the board accepted that new language by a 5-1 vote. Board member Peter Bealo, who voted against the board rules on March 20, voted against the rules once again, stating he was in favor of doing away with rules 7 and 8 altogether.

The revised Rule 7 states that “while it is hoped that those decisions will be supported by all board members regardless of how a board member voted, a board member is under no obligation to publicly support a board decision and is not restricted from publicly criticizing or expressing opposition to a board decision.”

Similarly, the revised Rule 8 encourages board members to direct the media to contact the chairman, but adds that nothing prohibits a board member from speaking to the media as an individual member of the board.

Superintendent Earl Metzler said the new language is the exact language that was proposed by the NHCLU. He added that it was never the intent to have School Board rules that violated First Amendment rights or restricted what an individual board member could do or say.

Steenson said that the controversy over the School Board rules led to a difficult few weeks for the board.

“It was never my intention to stifle anyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech,” said Steenson. “Our goal as a board has always been to ensure consistency and accuracy of information to the press, and having one spokesperson helps us achieve that goal.”

Steenson also pointed out that adopting the board rules was not her own personal mandate but an agenda item she moved along just minutes after being elected the board chairman a little over two weeks ago.

“Nevertheless, I have been accused of having a petty scheme to aggregate power to myself and been compared to Stalin,” Steenson said. “All of us here (on the School Board) have volunteered an enormous amount of time to try to make the schools better for our children while honoring the taxpayers budgetary concerns. We are moms and dads and grandparents just like you, and more importantly, we are your neighbors.”

NHCLU staff attorney Gilles Bissonnette said his group expresses no opinion on whether the rules as a whole are appropriate policy, but said the NHCLU believes the replacement language accomplishes the board leadership’s objective of allowing the chairman to speak on behalf of the board as a whole, while ensuring all individual members have the right to dissent when they feel it is appropriate.

“We are thankful for the board leadership’s willingness to immediately revisit these rules when our constitutional concerns were raised,” said Bissonnette.

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