Monthly Archives: May 2016

On Sandown North Playground Space

Last night’s public presentation on expanding Sandown North’s playground space was attended by just three members of the public.  That is too bad because a good slide was produced showing the various locations for expanded parking and field/playground enlargement.

The original idea of placing a playing field on the hill in front of the school seems to have been dropped in favor of other possibilities though it was not specifically addressed.  No mention was made of the outdoor classroom but I did ask Kelly Ward after the meeting where it would go and how large it might be and how it would relate to the new structure that is now in place. Mr. Ward provided some information on that project which is still preliminary.

Any Changes Must Tie in with Future Expansion Plans

At the May 11 Capital Improvement Plan meeting, a request was made for a $1.73 million expansion to Sandown North to include 8 new classrooms in 6 years. This proposed expansion and how it might affect playground plans was mentioned at last night’s presentation only after my inquiries.  Facilities Director, Mr. Hughes, said the expansion should not impact the current driveway; nevertheless, the plans presented to the CIP committee need to be studied relative to playground changes.  From my understanding of the plans, the 60 x 60  expansion looks like it pokes right out into the driveway off the C Wing.

All Changes Should Comply with  Best Practices for Playground Space

For best practices, I found this through the National Institute of Building Sciences (www.wbdg.org/resources/playground.php):

Estimating Square Footage Needs

Since the Gross Motor Play Zone is typically the largest and main zone within a playground, it is helpful to determine the square footage that will be needed for this area early in the design phase. The inclusion of additional zones in the design will require additional square footage. Research indicates that the greater the number of square feet allotted per child, there is a corresponding decrease in the number of injuries. The chart below gives guidelines for sizing the area of the playground that will contain the Gross Motor Play equipment.

Quality Square Feet per child*
Substandard 60
Good (Minimum) 75
Better 100
Best 200

*These square footages include the use zone that is strongly recommended around playground equipment for safety. This zone is typically 6′ minimum extending in all directions from the perimeter of play equipment; however, there are variations for slides and swings. The recommended use zones of playground equipment are discussed in both ASTM F1487 and on pages 6-8 of the CPSC Public Playground Safety Handbook (PDF 1.2 MB).   Source: www.wbdg.org/resources/playground.php


Although not applicable to a renovation situation, the state of NH requires 5 acres of contiguous buildable land in order to approve state funding for a new elementary school of SN’s size.

Ed 321.03  Minimum Standards for School Sites.

(f)  The minimum site size approvable for school building aid for new construction, including additions to existing buildings, for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools shall be as follows:

(1)  For an elementary school the minimum site size shall be 3 acres of contiguous buildable land for schools with a design capacity of less than 150 students and 5 acres of contiguous buildable land for schools with a design capacity of 150 students or higher;


Before any public money is spent on badly needed expansion to the grounds, the public and the school board should be given quantitative information about

  • the square footage of playing space around equipment
  • square footage for all fields
  • total outdoor playing area square footage with and without new “outdoor classroom”
  • current and projected student enrollment figures
  • plot plan for the entire site showing boundaries and topography
  • proposed expansion plans for the building and its impact on the grounds and driveways

I’d also like to be assured we haven’t missed any state or federal requirements or recommended best practices.  A letter from DOE about playground space requirements would be a good idea.

Rectangles on a Google map are a nice start, but they are just that.  A start.

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TRSD’s Dismal Legal Score

Just about batting zero: that’s how I would characterize Timberlane’s legal success in recent years.

Here’s a list of legal entanglements since I’ve been on the school board, (March 2014):

  • School Board Rules:  written by Rob Collins, challenged by NH ACLU.  TRSB backed down entirely on challenged provisions, and a year later eliminated the “rules” altogether. SB Rules 2014  SB Rules 2015
  • Failure to hold a public hearing on receipt of HealthTrust return of surplus: Cathy Gorman, Arthur Green and I claimed a public hearing should have been held to accept unanticipated revenue.  The district provided a lawyer’s letter of opinion touted to support the district’s position. When read closely, the letter in fact confirmed our position that a public hearing was legally required. See  Hearing Required
  • Criminal complaint against Green: The superintendent filed a complaint against me with the Plaistow Police after an innocuous exchange of words I had with the superintendent’s assistant.  A No Trespass order was issued against me by the superintendent. The police did not find grounds to charge me. Once my lawyer became involved, the police investigation was closed and the “no trespass” was withdrawn. I was publicly vindicated by the security video that had been withheld by the district to that point.  Lehmann slams police  Lehmann slams SAU 55
  • Refusal to establish a withdrawal committee:  Immediately after the 2015 election when Sandown voted to study withdrawal from the district, the SAU issued a press release stating in part: “First, the study itself and all of its responsibilities belong to the town of Sandown. It will be up to the town to establish a committee and conduct the actual study. The composition of the committee is outlined in the statute.
    Second, any costs associated with the study shall be borne by the town of Sandown as this is a town endeavor and no funds were appropriated in the article.”  The district eventually had to acknowledge the law and did indeed establish a withdrawal committee and did vote funds for research. No Study from TRSD!
  • Danville and Sandown v. TRSD:  the judge ruled the towns did not have standing to sue.  He did not rule on the substantive issues underlying the suit. Neither party can claim a victory in that case.
  • Timberlane’s insistence that Danville BOS member, Josh Horns step down from Timberlane’s Budget Committee (or Danville BOS):  the state’s Attorney General’s office determined there was no provision in the law being violated, or conflict of office, in having a sitting selectman serve on a regional school district budget committee. No Incompatibility of Office
  • Morse v. TRSD and SAU55:  Settlement by mediation.  Although the school board has not been told any details concerning the settlement apart from the fact that there was a settlement, one lawyer I know personally has told me that insurance companies agree to settlements only when they believe they can’t win in court. To do otherwise is to encourage frivolous suits against insured entities. Now I know nothing about this case in particular, but there are two reasons I think the district cannot count this as a win:

1) The fact that the terms of the settlement have not been made public or disclosed to the school board;

2) The fact that the discipline against Ms. Morse was publicly rescinded in an agreed public statement following the mediation: “The Timberlane Regional School District honors the rights of employees guaranteed by the Constitution to express themselves in their private lives on matters of public concern except in instances where that speech is unprotected. The discipline imposed on Carolyn Morse arising out of her Facebook post is rescinded. To the extent that discipline was perceived as an infringement of her rights, it was not intended as such but rather was intended to protect the privacy rights of District employees.”

  • Green v. TRSD and SAU55:  On appeal to NH’s Supreme Court, the district lost and was required to produce documents in a searchable electronic form.Supreme Court decision2016034green

Pretty dismal record for a district with multiple lawyers on speed dial. For years I have been calling for the school board and the SAU board to exercise more control over the superintendent’s authority to engage legal counsel and to undertake legal action. Would things improve if the SAU had to get board approval before spending our money on legal battles that in some cases seem politically motivated and are seldom won?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SAU Provides Budget/Salary Info

I am happy to announce that SAU 55 has given me all the budget/staffing information I have requested under Right to Know.

On Tuesday, May 10, 2016, I collected my thumb drive from the SAU and was delighted to find all the files in Excel format.  And they are searchable. I’m grateful the SAU did not argue over the file format.

It is a pity this outcome had to be won by an appeal to the Supreme Court, but now citizens throughout the state can ask for and receive electronic files of government documents when those files are maintained electronically.

For those who missed the original posting of Attorney Lehmann’s most recent letter in which we ask for the files in Excel, here it is again: demand letter for excel budget info

Stay tuned for future postings once we’ve have a chance to digest the information we received.  It will take some weeks, but there will be follow up. (You can be notified of future postings by clicking “F” (follow) at the top of the page.)

Former TRSD Budget Committee member, Arthur Green, suggests that the SAU post the files they provided to us on the Budget Committee’s public pages of TRSD’s website.  If they don’t, we’ll be posting them to  Google Drive in short order. (Unfortunately, my free version of WordPress doesn’t support Excel files.)

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Regina: No to Steenson, please.

May 11, 2016

Dear Ms. Birdsell:

We have very much appreciated your support for open government in the past and have very much respected your record of public service. I am writing now to express my profound disappointment in learning that you are supporting Nancy Steenson for NH Senate.
I was a school board member under Ms. Steenson for the two years of her disastrous chairmanship of Timberlane Regional School district wherein two towns of our district sued the district and the SAU, a teacher sued the district and the SAU, and I, myself, successfully sued the district and the SAU.  To my knowledge, no chairmanship in the history of our district saw so many lawsuits and so much discord within the district towns and very much for reasons competent leadership could have avoided.
Ms. Steenson was inadequate for school board chairmanship and placing her in higher authority is a menace to republican values.  I have long experience with her in action, action which does not match her words.
Ms. Steenson’s actions in office include:
  • stonewalling any calls for basic financial accountability by the SAU to district towns even to the extent of blocking agenda item requests concerning financial matters;
  • repeatedly thwarting requests for basic information about district operations;
  • ignoring violations of budget laws and school board policy governing spending of funds for purposes different from the appropriated budget;
  • inappropriately signing a contract to renew the superintendent’s wife’s consulting contract (for 5 years) without an explicit board vote – a contract that should have gone to the voters;
  • contemptuous treatment of residents who raised matters of importance such as the chairman of the Danville Board of Selectman.
As chairman, Ms. Steenson also was part and parcel in publicly censuring me in July 2014 for criticisms of her and the school board expressed on my blog, a blog that won a New Hampshire Press Association award that year.
In her capacity of chairman of the Timberlane Regional School Board, Ms. Steenson demonstrated disrespect for the law, disregard for fiscal accountability and responsibility, and contempt for those who criticized her.  Her actions betrayed every Republican principle we hold dear though her words are very much otherwise.
Please reconsider your endorsement.
Most sincerely,
Donna Green
Sandown, NH

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Mark May 16th on Your Calendar: Drug Forum

TIMBERLANE REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT

PRESS RELEASE

Timberlane School Board Drug Abuse Prevention Forum

The Timberlane School Board, in collaboration with district personnel, will host a

drug abuse prevention forum on Monday, May 16th at the Timberlane

Performing Arts Center, 40 Greenough Road, Plaistow. The forum will feature

representatives from state and local law enforcement, social services and other

agencies who will discuss the opiate and prescription drug epidemic currently

facing our state. Topics will include how this crisis affects our communities and

families as well as strategies in how to combat it.

This event is free to the public and begins at 7PM sharp. Parents, concerned

citizens, school personnel, and community officials are encouraged to attend.

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NH School Boards Association: not working for you

When your tax dollars work against your interests, something is wrong.

I attended the New Hampshire School Boards Association “Annual New School Board Orientation and Board Chair Workshops” on May 3, 2016. Since I am not a new board member, I asked to attend the board chair workshop and was kindly given leave to do so. This fried Timberlane’s chairman Peter Bealo who said during the workshop that he would not comment because I was present.  Mr. Bealo’s comment wasn’t the only objectionable takeaway from the instruction/discussion that night.

The workshop was broken into three parts.

PART ONE: “Conducting Effective School Board Meetings,”  a lecture by their resident lawyer, Barrett Christina, who is also NHSBA’s Deputy Executive Director. He suggested a number of things which are intended to serve boards very well, but which I heartily believe are not in the best interest of the public:

  1. Establish a consent agenda for “routine matters, such as minutes and monthly expenses, which can be approved together without discussion.”  I wish our board got monthly expense reports!  Your board, however, has no interest in “micromanaging” the affairs of the SAU so they don’t want to see any numbers ever, but you can be sure if we were given monthly expense reports that they would be worth a comment or two – and even a question to the Business Administrator. As for our minutes, these have often taken the form of political whitewashes for what actually transpires in our meetings. Not infrequently in the past, my vote has been mistakenly recorded.

A consent agenda works for legislation at the State House.  It does not work at the board level where everything should be open for comment and question. Why else is it being given to us for a vote?

Peter Bealo complained in the workshop that it takes his board forever to get through minutes.  He didn’t add that our minutes in the past have been riddled with issues. My objections to the inaccuracies and whitewashes in our minutes past has become an embarrassment to the board.  The correct response is to improve the minutes, which I’m happy to say have considerably improved of late.

2. Mr. Christina advocates that minutes should be nothing more than a record of the action taken by the board and need include no more than what is set out by statute – those present, time and place, motions and brief summary of discussion. He emphasized “brief.”  Following this advice would make our main minutes as skeletal as our non-public minutes.  This does not serve the public’s interest and is a prime example of how the NHSBA is advising school board chairman and school board members generally to put their interests above the interests of the public they have been elected to serve.

Attorney Christina’s advice on minutes should have been

  • don’t make your minutes political in any way
  • accurately and fairly capture public comment
  • fairly set out the reasons for votes both in support and against all motions
  • correctly record everyone’s vote

Please understand that I’m not criticizing the work of any employee in my comments because I know that what is expected in these minutes comes from higher authorities than the minute writer – and that is the issue here.

3. Mr. Christina also emphasized that “New Business” should not have any surprises. Currently New Business is the only place on the agenda where TRSB members can bring up issues.  Our opportunity to get issues included on the agenda is minuscule. All three of my motions to add things to future agendas were soundly rejected by the board at the April 21 meeting. TRSB also voted down discussing a registered letter we received with serious concerns about our Articles of Agreement.  Mr. Christina’s advice, in my opinion, erects another impediment to elected officials in conducting their representation.

4. Mr. Christina also said that policies should be ready for board approval when they come out of policy committee and that really there should be no need for multiple readings. Yes, this is what our board would like, too, so no one really has to think about their primary function and just entrust it to a few on the policy committee who are outnumbered by administration – if they should ever again have a difference of opinion now that I have been removed from the policy committee.

In fairness, a few good  suggestions did come out of the discussion.

  • Mr. Christina suggested that subcommittee minutes should be included in agenda packets.  TRSB as a whole never sees committee minutes.  Oddly enough, I motioned at the April 21th school board meeting to have all standing committee draft minutes emailed to the board when they are prepared.  TRSB  voted this down.
  • A chairman in the audience said that her board has an agenda heading; “Agenda items for next meeting.”  (Someone probably took this chairman aside and browbeat some sense into her later.)
  • Someone else in the audience suggested  a “two-week rule” whereby something introduced to the board in one meeting can be voted only only at the next meeting.  This prevents the board from being steamrollered.  TRSB has no such policy or procedure. We are as flat as cardboard cutouts.

PART TWO:   “Building Positive Relations with the Public and the Press.”

Much of this discussion was taken up with techniques for suppressing board members with minority opinions from speaking to the press.  By coincidence a chairman sitting next to me said, “I don’t agree with that. Haven’t they heard about Plaistow?”

“That was me,” I said.

“Thank you,” he responded. “I give that article to all my board members.”

He is referring  TRSB’s School Board Rules fiasco in 2014 that disallowed individual board members from speaking to the press or criticizing a board decision in public.  The NH ACLU stepped in to rescue our First Amendment rights, not to mention our duty as elected representatives of our towns.

Yes, despite the black eye Timberlane got when mightily beaten up in the press, the NHSBA is still urging board chairmen to reign in their members so that the press gets a unified message.  Not only that but School Board member ethics policy was brought up as a way to entrap board members into behaving as they are told.  The ethics policy, which all board members are asked to sign, requires members to support all decisions made by the board. (I refuse to sign this because of this provision and don’t you think Mr. Bealo piped up to say, “She won’t even sign the Ethics Policy!”) Ted Comstock,  NHSBA Executive Director, said that an elected board member could be removed from the board for consistently violating policy.

This is patently false, but why not instill this falsehood in chairmen to embolden their persecution of minority opinion on their boards?  By law, elected officials can be removed from office for only two reasons – stealing and violation of confidentiality with a material consequence.

Someone in the audience getting into the spirit of things said that the liability insurance provided to board members would not extend to rogue board members violating policy.  I wonder how that would work when challenged in court: unconstitutional policy leads to (illegal) withholding of board member’s liability insurance?

PART THREE: Board Chair Roundtable and Best Practices

Much of the roundtable discussion had to do with suppressing public comment at school board meetings.  It was received wisdom in the room that no boards should respond to public comment. It was said that meetings are not a forum for educating the public. And that, in a nutshell, is the attitude that travels like a virus from the NHSBA to every school board in the state. We, the almighty school board, do not have to answer to you, peon parents and taxpayers!   It is exactly this warped attitude that justifies chairmen in having parents shut down at meetings and/or seeking their arrest as happened in Alton, NH.  http://aclu-nh.org/aclu-nh-settles-alton-free-speech-case-for-42500/

Mr. Christina also encouraged chairmen to have their boards adopt a policy that limits public comment to agenda items only.

You got an issue?  You can’t handle an issue! Speak to the agenda or don’t speak at all.

CONCLUSION

Ask yourself, as I have, who these misguided opinions are serving. It is clearly not the elected officials who have an obligation to represent their constituents with every atom of their best efforts and to respond to their concerns. To me, it is clear that this organization exists to advance the interests of SAUs and puppet school boards. They do this also by active lobbying at the state legislature, too.

If NHSBA lost its funding, I would salvage only their model policy bank and their collective agreement database, both of which could be maintained by dedicated volunteers. What about their legal advice service? Since the district is NHSBA’s client, not individual school board members, the association does not give advice to individual elected officials. For those districts without boards that allow unlimited legal expenses as does TRSD, this function could easily be taken over by the NH Municipal Association.

Looking for cuts, Gov. Hassan?  Let me point the way.

The opinions expressed in this article are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect any organization of which I am a member.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After the decision: a new RTK request

Yesterday at 4 pm was the deadline for SAU 55 to ask the NH Supreme Court to reconsider its decision concerning citizen’s right to information in electronic format. Sensibly, the SAU did not do so.  At 4:15 pm, my lawyer sent SAU 55  a fresh Right to Know request asking for the budget detail in spreadsheet format that I went to court to obtain. RTK2 for budget info

You might think that after the decision that the district would have simply emailed me the information I fought so hard to obtain, or kindly presented it to me on a thumb drive with the word, “congratulations” on it.  No. I have to climb every mountain, as our current musical production extols.

I submitted a thumb drive in unopened original packaging and followed it up with a letter from my lawyer stating exactly what I want provided on it.

Why did I feel I needed a sternly worded letter from my attorney, Richard Lehmann? Because Dr. Metzler had said in a public school board meeting that he would be providing pdf files in response to Right to Know requests for electronic format.

The point of my case was to obtain information in a electronic format suitable for detailed analysis.

I sincerely hope the superintendent will comply with my request and not continue to place obstacles in the way of an elected official wishing to diligently analyze our staffing and budget.

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