Paul Feely's City Hall: Did school board member violate confidentiality?By PAUL FEELY
October 01. 2017 12:06AM
"AT SOME POINT, enough has got to be enough."
Those were the words spoken by At-Large school board member Rich Girard last week, expressing the frustration he and others felt as the latest attempt to hold an elected official accountable for violating the city's charter fell on deaf ears.
During last week's school board meeting, members discussed the release of nonpublic information regarding personnel matters by At-Large member Nancy Tessier. As revealed during last week's session, after a nearly two-hour nonpublic session on Sept. 11, board members voted to authorize Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas to take whatever steps he deemed necessary to discuss a letter from Department of Education (DOE) Commissioner Frank Edelblut regarding the Manchester school district's "longstanding noncompliance" with the state's special education laws and required corrective actions.
That vote was 10-3, with only Tessier, Ward 12's Connie Van Houten and Dan Bergeron of Ward 6 opposed. Ward 4's Leslie Want was absent.
As discussed last week, Tessier sent an email to Mayor Ted Gatsas, Vargas, and the entire school board regarding the discussion held in nonpublic session - and copied on the email the employees who were the topics of the behind-closed-doors discussions.
That email led board Vice Chair Art Beaudry to ask the school district's attorney to review Tessier's email and determine what, if any, actions the board could take. The result was a letter from attorney James O'Shaughnessy, which appeared as an action item on last week's agenda.
When the matter came up for discussion, Van Houten immediately moved to receive and file the letter.
"I think in light of the allegations, there should be some discussion, because there was an egregious breach of confidentiality," said Beaudry. "I can't believe the district can continue to keep operating, when no sooner do we get out of a nonpublic meeting than the issues that were talked about in the nonpublic session get disseminated out to the public."
"I don't know frankly how we continue to run a district with a superintendent who doesn't feel he can come talk to us in nonpublic session without it being out in an email and or phone calls before the doors to City Hall are even locked," said Girard. "His professional reputation is at risk. His ability to manage the district is at risk, and I would not want to be on the receiving end of that lawsuit."
Board members voted against a motion by Girard to make the contents of O'Shaughnessy's letter public, with Erika Connors, John Avard, Katie Desrochers, Van Houten, Sarah Ambrogi, Want, Bergeron and Tessier opposed. Ross Terrio, Beaudry, Deb Langton, Lisa Freeman, Gatsas and Girard voted in favor of releasing the letter.
The New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News filed a Right-to-Know request with the district seeking a copy of the letter. The district acknowledged the request last Thursday with an email stating, "As your request is under review by the District's legal counsel, the District requires an additional 10 days to determine whether the request shall be granted or denied in whole or in part. Thank you for your patience."
Portions of the letter were briefly discussed in public session last week, when Girard pointed out the letter reported the Right-to-Know law was violated, the city charter was violated and "in my opinion the superintendent's contract was violated."
Girard told board members the letter stated the board member in question - Tessier - could possibly be removed from office under RSA 42:1 - "Manner of Dismissal; Breach of Confidentiality" - by filing a petition in Superior Court. The RSA reads, "Without limiting other causes for such a dismissal, it shall be considered a violation of a town officer's oath for the officer to divulge to the public any information which that officer learned by virtue of his official position, or in the course of his official duties."
"I only bring this up to underscore the seriousness in which the law takes aim at these violations," said Girard. "I don't think this can be received and filed, but if the board is going to continue to violate those confidences then we need to understand it is only because the board hasn't taken action to correct it."
"This has got to be out in the public and this district has opened itself up to a huge liability lawsuit," said Beaudry. "By just receiving and filing it all we are doing is burying our head in the sand and not taking care of the problem."
"This individual made a mistake," said Connors. "We have board members sitting around here that have made breaches of confidentiality before that this board has come to their defense, both verbally and legally, and if we are going to penalize this one person for a mistake then we need to penalize everyone who has made a mistake on his board and be consistent with it."
"Mistakes happen, mistakes have been made," said Van Houten. "The integrity of the individual at question is unquestionable, and I don't believe there was any malice."
Beaudry wondered aloud about Tessier's reasons for sending the email.
"I wonder why she did it, and what her train of thought was like," said Beaudry.
"I have no comment," said Tessier last week.
On Saturday, Tessier did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
Van Houten's motion to receive and file passed, with Connors, Avard, Desrochers, Van Houten, Ambrogi, Want, Bergeron and Tessier in favor. Opposed were Terrio, Beaudry, Langton, Freeman, Gatsas and Girard.
Jon DiPietro, candidate for school board in Ward 6, has submitted his own Right-to-Know request with Manchester Board of School Committee Clerk Maura Wellington, also seeking access to O'Shaughnessy's letter to board members detailing the results of his investigation into Tessier's email.
"Tessier's reckless act put the City of Manchester at legal risk and undermined the confidence and authority of Superintendent Vargas," said DiPietro. "The shameful and inexcusable behavior of the Manchester BOSC, including Ward 6 incumbent Dan Bergeron, to hide the facts from the public cannot be tolerated. For this reason, I am requesting a copy of the letter containing the findings of the investigation so that the citizens of Manchester can hold their elected officials accountable. This is another example of a board that's dysfunctional because it's protecting one of its own instead of the interests of the district and the kids."
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Mayoral candidate Joyce Craig's campaign issued a release last week reporting Gatsas skipped a nonpublic meeting of the full school board on Aug. 24 to attend a campaign event at Birch Hill Terrace.
"I'm disappointed that Mayor Gatsas decided to attend a campaign event instead of an official meeting of the school board," said Craig in a statement. "Our school district faces real challenges and we need a mayor who will show up to work and solve problems. I know from my experience on the school board that nonpublic meetings cover very important topics and missing one for a campaign event is unacceptable."
"This nonpublic school board meeting was called on short notice and was not a regularly scheduled meeting," said Ross Berry, Gatsas' campaign manager. "The mayor had made a prior commitment to attend an event at the Birch Hill assisted-living home well before the announcement and was unable to reschedule. The mayor has attended every regularly scheduled school board meeting this year, including the meeting held this past Monday. These attacks, orchestrated by the Joyce Craig campaign, are nothing more than pathetic attempts to distract from her awful record of raising taxes multiple times on Manchester's taxpayers and homeowners."
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Elizabeth Ann Moreau was sworn in last Tuesday as the new Ward 6 alderman, taking the oath in the New Hampshire Primary conference room on the third floor of City Hall. This Tuesday marks her first full board meeting, and she has already received her committee assignments - Finance, Administration and Information Systems, Lands and Buildings, and Joint School Buildings.
Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.