MANCHESTER, NH — School committee member at-large Rich Girard has gone on the defensive after it was brought to light during the Nov. 13 Board of School Committee meeting that he may have overstepped the bounds of his position by using a student’s protected school email account to take issue with her opinion piece.
It’s an interaction that may be in violation of a federal privacy act as well as the Manchester School Board’s own rules.
The student, Central senior Rachel Phelan, wrote an editorial published Sept. 28 in Central’s school newspaper, The Little Green, in which she urged students to support teachers currently working without a contract. [Phelan’s editorial was also submitted to ManchesterInklink and published on Oct. 8.]
Negotiations between the school board and Manchester Education Association had been sputtering along for months without resolution or salary discussion, something that is noted accurately in Phelan’s article.
“While the school board has accepted the mission of Manchester Proud, they continue to stall negotiations for the renewal of teacher contracts. Every three years, teachers contracts are renewed and new negotiations take place. These negotiations have historically been stalled, as the school board has repeatedly refused to meet Manchester teachers’ contract proposals that would give teachers fair compensation. Not only is this blatant disrespect and disregard for the quality of Manchester’s teachers, but it has also caused the district to lose excellent new teachers who receive better compensation in other districts.”
Girard chairs the school board’s negotiation team, which also includes Sarah Ambrogi (Ward 1), Katie Desrochers (Ward 11), Jimmy Lehoux (Ward 8), and Ross Terrio (Ward 7).
In his email to Phelan, Girard referenced negotiations committee progress that had taken place three days before Phelan’s article appeared in the Little Green, a monthly student-created publication which takes weeks to assemble. Girard in his email accused Phelan of using “propaganda” from the teachers’ union position to support her opinion. Phelan is the daughter of Weston Elementary School teacher Jeanne Phelan.
During the Nov. 13 school board meeting the issue of Girard using the school email system to contact Phelan directly was brought forth by Jim Colby, a Memorial teacher whose son is a personal friend of Phelan’s.
Colby, who acknowledges that he is a long-time critic of Girard for his personal commentary on public matters, outlined to the board during public comment that it concerned him that school board members have open access to students through the school’s confidential student email list. He noted that one board member had recently used that system to communicate with a student directly, crossing a fine line of privacy.
He said he brought the matter forward because he believes that action violates the federal Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) which makes student educational records and personally-identifiable information confidential.
It also appears that Girard’s actions may have violated two articles of the Manchester School Board’s own 2018-2020 Rules The first prohibits school board members from acting independently as individuals in official matters.
2.04: Persons appearing before the Board are reminded, as a point of information, that members of the Board are without authority to act independently as individuals in official matters.
Colby says he came before the board to ask that they consider shifting school committee member emails to the city email system so that student access would be restricted to school district teachers and administrators. He said he did so in light of the recent statewide code of conduct which holds teachers accountable for their actions, including how they use electronic and social media.
Colby referenced “indiscretions” some have had using electronic communications, a reference to a 2014 incident in which Girard, who is married, admitted to having a sexually explicit and inappropriate text-messaging communication with a former city resident, Melissa Gavazzi, who had appeared on Girard’s radio program.
Girard eventually admitted it was he who had used the school district email system to “correct” Phelan on what he described as “demonstrably wrong information” included in her opinion article. This came after fellow board member Ross Terrio apologized to the board for his use of the email system to contact students who were working with the board on a special committee.
School board member David Scanell told Terrio he was not the board member being referenced by Colby.
Board member John Avard also raised the question of FERPA violation, and reinforced that student data should be private.
Board member Jimmy Lehoux said he agreed with others that the email system should be revisited.
“We learned in Boy Scouts the power of three. You never have a communication with someone underage without a group, or an agreement. I’d vote in total favor of that [change],” Lehoux said.
Board member Lisa Freeman said she was hesitant to vote on any change in email protocol until she knew exactly what was going on, which led to Girard to “confess” that he had emailed Phelan, noting that “she is not a minor,” and defended his actions.
Several other board members, including Mayor Joyce Craig, agreed that it was inappropriate for Girard to directly contact a student, and that the current email system should be reconsidered.
Board member Dan Bergeron brought up the issue of the lack of a school board code of conduct or ethics, which he pointed out most companies and organizations require.
The board agreed to send the matter to coordination committee for further discussion.
Two days later Girard revived the conversation by dedicating his cable-TV program, Girard At-Large, to the topic, defending himself while questioning the reaction from Phelan and her supporters.
“It seems a graaaave injustice has been done,” said Girard in opening the program. “I’m a bad man because I, your humble host, contacted a student in the Central High School Little Green newspaper, and I in doing so crossed a sacred line that’s supposed to prevent school board members from having direct contact with students, and somehow I became a creepy individual because I went through a process to find an email address and, according to the mayor, that person may have been uncomfortable that I sent an email, and therefore it’s inappropriate and should not have been done.”
“My god, they made it sound like I had somehow propositioned the girl, when in fact I sent her a statement correcting the record that she incorrectly reported in her column. Somebody still has yet to give me a rationale as for why I must go through the newspaper adviser or principal or somehow have an adult stand between my commentary and her apparently too-fragile ears, eyes, brain — I don’t know.”
In fact, the rationale is found in article 3.02 of the school committee’s rules, which states that the designated communication channel between school board members and students shall be only through the Superintendent:
While communication is always encouraged, the channel for official action between the schools (teachers, students, parents, parent teacher associations, principals, supervisors, etc.) and the Board of School Committee, shall be the Superintendent of Schools.
In his Manchester Public TV program, which is also broadcast on Girard’s social media page, Girard said reaching out through the Little Green or an adviser to the paper would have “publicly embarrassed” Phelan. He said he was being characterized as a bully by a “propaganda machine” as part of a “political hit job” against him, adding “is she a snowflake and I’m a hairdryer? I don’t get it. And yes, I’d do it again.”
As of Nov. 18 the program was still posted on a public Facebook page for Girard’s TV show. A copy of the email exchange between Girard and Phelan was initially posted on girardatlarge.com, including Phelan’s student email address, which was later redacted by Girard. On Sunday his website, girardatlarge.com, appeared to be offline, but was available again as of Nov. 19.
Here is a link to a story posted Nov. 16 by Girard: Girard released ‘inappropriate’ email.