MANCHESTER, NH — Tuesday night’s school board meeting took a turn for the dramatic, as it segued from a productive discussion over how to resolve school transportation woes to a suspense-filled whodunnit.
Here’s the plot: A board member leaked to the press a document exposing some legal hot water another board member was stewing in based on a previous internal board spat involving use of district email, student privacy, and the airing of grievances via the Internet.
If none of that sounds like it has anything to do with education or student success, well, it doesn’t.
But the board as a unit has consistently had trouble staying focused on governance due to recurring personality conflicts, political differences and voting blocs that hamstring progress.
This is more of that.
Spoiler alert: The bad blood in particular Tuesday was between committee member Rich Girard, the subject of the leaked document, and Dave Scannell, the secret leaker — and their respective alliances — which prior to his confession culminated in a unanimous vote to make the leaked document a police matter.
And then, just when it looked like SWAT might arrive to settle the matter, Scannell confessed — with a seven-point prepared statement in his defense, citing things like the document in question was never confidential, and that no document sent via the board’s listserv is exempt from the public’s right to know, and elected officials have no immunity from embarrassment when a letter addressed to them goes out to the full board without a “confidential” stamp.
Prior to Scannell’s confession, Girard said it was evident that the leak was made for “malicious purposes,” with him as the target.
The leaked letter, from Bedford Attorney Karen Hewes representing Central student Rachel Phelan, was addressed to Girard via the school district’s office address. It put Girard on notice about his use of the Internet and social media to rehash the whole thing and make disparaging remarks about Phelan.
All that was fallout from the Nov. 13 school board meeting, during which Girard was called out for using the district’s internal email system to directly dispute the political position of Phelan’s student editorial in Central’s Little Green newspaper, and also possibly violating district email policy.
In her opinion piece Phelan, a student editor of the school publication, encouraged fellow students to support teachers still working without a contract, and took aim at the school board’s negotiation team for not negotiating in good faith.
Girard chairs the negotiation team. He said he contacted Phelan to “correct” her opinion article, which he later described as propaganda during a video broadcast, and defended his actions to the board by saying that she was not a minor, and the content of the email was not inappropriate.
He said the attack on him for contacting Phelan was spearheaded by Scannell a calculated political “hit job” manufactured for the sole purpose of undermining him.
The November meeting resulted in the board referring the matter of email security to the coordination committee, and Girard being told he should not have contacted a student directly, but should have either submitted a response as a letter to editor of The Little Green, or communicated through another adult.
Two days later Girard took to the Internet via video broadcast to rehash the situation, defend himself, and also reposted a copy of the email exchange, failing to black-out the student’s numeric confidential email account number — which is basically why he received a letter of warning from Phelan’s attorney. Scannell sent a copy of that letter to the press.
And that’s what begat Tuesday night’s unrest.
At one point before Scannell’s confession, committee member Sarah Ambrogi tried to remind the board that the civil war was being televised, and the barn was empty.
“I would just like to call our attention back to what at least one person said who came forward in public session tonight, the public really does not enjoy watching us have this particular kind of discussion. Now while I acknowledge this was bad … it’s happened, the horse has left the barn, “Ambrogi said.
“How are we serving students in wrangling this way except to show the public we enjoy tearing at each other? I’m not enjoying listening to it. I don’t think anyone who’s watching on TV is enjoying watching it, and I really honestly don’t see any point to it. With all due respect to what everyone has said I think — while I agree it is bad, it’s happened, it’s done. We don’t know if it’s a member of this board, but the committee member who brought it up is right; it’s reprehensible and if it’s a member of this board, it should not have happened. Let’s let this discussion stand for that position and let’s move on,” Ambrogi said.
Committee member Lisa Freeman agreed with Ambrogi about the horse being out of the barn, but also agreed with Terrio, Lehoux and Girard, that an investigation was necessary to send a clear message to the public that the board is trustworthy, and will hold themselves accountable. Also, that it was not time to behave like ostriches.
“I do agree with committee member Ambrogi. But what I’d like to remind everyone is that we took an oath … it’s past history and the horse is out of the barn, I understand that. But if we as a board collectively put our head in the sand and allow this to go unchecked and go unnoticed and just sweep it under the carpet then there’s no guarantee this won’t happen again,” Freeman said.
“This is not just merely someone who used bad judgement. This is a direct and a clear violation of the law. Why take an oath if you’re not going to honor what that means, to take an oath to go into non-public session… No one enjoys this, but if we don’t put a lid on this, and at least try to — we have to find out what happened. We owe it to this board in order to maintain or even build some kind of integrity. You know the the people who put us here trust us, and can’t trust us if they don’t know who did this.”
Committee member Leslie Want attempted to bring the board back to the reality of school issues.
“I agree with committee woman Ambrogi, no ifs ands or buts. At some point we have to decide whether or not we’re going to take the high road, and the high road has got to be to turn back to the work of this board which is work that further’s our student’s educations and not continually working to discredit ourselves, that’s exactly what’s happening,” Want said.
“So I would implore this board to not continue down this path. If we’re talking about not wasting money for our students to have a special place to go to for adult education that’s going to cost us $6,000, why would we spend any money at all paying a lawyer and investigating this? At some point we gotta just let it go,” Want said.
Committee member Terrio did not agree with Ambrogi or Want, and urged the board to close the barn door.
“If this was a one time thing, or accidental, I’d agree with committee members Ambrogi and Want. But here’s the problem: It’s happened before this, it’s happened again, and what’s to stop it from happening again in the future? Who’s going to close the barn the next time it happens? Actually, if we don’t make a decision tonight it’s only going to embolden people to say there are no repercussions,” Terrio said.
This sort of unrest has been a recurring theme on this board, which regularly features infighting over non-educational matters, tempers flaring, accusations flying, pot-shots taken, and general malaise by just about everyone else bearing witness to the shenanigans.
On Tuesday, committee member Jimmy Lehoux introduced an agenda item for a motion to instruct the proper committee or authority to investigate the “leak” to the press, which resulted in stories about the matter published on Manchester Ink LInk and in the New Hampshire Union Leader, leading Lehoux and others to raise the question of whether confidentiality had been breached.
“This is really pretty simple, ” Lehoux began, outlining that under oath board members agree to certain parameters of confidentiality. “If you’re here and you want to fess up now, we can just let bygones be bygones, that’d be fine, and we can eliminate the investigation. It’s really that simple.”
But it wasn’t.
Two votes, a confession, and 45 minutes later nothing was solved, bygones were still not bygones, and committee member Long was forced to acknowledge that a group hug was not on the agenda.
The first vote was to turn over matters to the city’s legal department. It failed in a tie vote — primarily due to costs associated with bringing in legal counsel. The second vote, on a motion by committee member Terrio to save money by turning over the matter to police or the county attorney, passed unanimously — and appeared to prompt Scannell to confess.
“When I shared the letter with the media I was confident I was sharing a document the public had a right to access,” Scannell said. He disputed allegations that he knowingly violated confidentiality, citing he had received a letter via the board listserv with no confidential stamp.
Vice Chair Art Beaudry, who conducted the meeting in the absence of Mayor Craig, who is away on city business, disagreed with Scannell’s assessment.
“That is not what our attorney who represents us expressed to me personally — she is extremely concerned and disappointed on this breach of confidentiality, which is what she considered it,” Beaudry said.
Finally, Girard made a motion to send Scannell’s confession to the board’s legal counsel for a legal opinion as to whether his “leak” was a violation of the city’s Right to Know Law as well as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) student privacy act.
That motion failed, with only Girard, Terrio, Lehoux, Beaudry and Freeman voting in favor. Committee member Mary Georges had left the meeting before the vote, and committee member Kelly Thomas was absent. Girard vowed to reintroduce his motion for reconsideration at the next meeting.