Tag Archives: democratic process

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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Subcommittees and Non-public Meetings

Board subcommittees should not be meeting in non-public to the exclusion of other board members.  Period.  A recent action by your school board will show why.

On April 14, the TRSD Safety Committee along with police went into non-public to have a discussion with Homeland Security.  The Safety Committee co-chairman, Kelly Ward, refused to allow me to be present during this non-public meeting even though I was there (during the public portion) and requested to attend.  (I am not a member of the Safety Committee, which is a standing committee of the school board.  I am, however, a member of the school board.)

At their previous Safety Committee meeting, that committee once again met in non-public with a Homeland Security representative.

Subsequent to this non-public safety committee meeting, the school board was asked to approve a Homeland Security matching grant for $48,000 in total.  ($24,00 in TRSD commitment.)  The board was not given any written material to support this need for money, nor was the board given, despite my request, the terms and conditions of the matching loan itself. The most sketchy details were floated of what would be done with this money, and a vote was taken, as it often is at our board, “on faith, and trust.”  My personal account of those TRSD commodities is in overdraft right now.

Fortunately I was able to obtain more detailed information through public documents made available by the Manchester School District.  They applied for the same grant.

What I learned from Manchester

  1. The equipment has to be purchased and installed by September 30, 2016 and the paperwork for reimbursement must be completed by Oct 31, 2016. I do not recall this being mentioned during our brief discussion of this grant because I would certainly have asked after our manpower to get all this ordered and installed in such a short time – as well as the bookkeeping followup during SAU summer hours.[Note: other board members got a single sheet of paper that I’ve subsequently learned did say that the equipment had to be installed by Sept. 30.  That paper was absent my packet.]
  2. The equipment purchases must comply with OMB Circular 2 CFR 200 which requires in part that:

    §200.62   Internal control over compliance requirements for Federal awards.

    Internal control over compliance requirements for Federal awards means a process implemented by a non-Federal entity designed to provide reasonable assurance regarding the achievement of the following objectives for Federal awards:

    (a) Transactions are properly recorded and accounted for, in order to:

    (1) Permit the preparation of reliable financial statements and Federal reports;

    (2) Maintain accountability over assets; and

    (3) Demonstrate compliance with Federal statutes, regulations, and the terms and conditions of the Federal award;

    (b) Transactions are executed in compliance with:

    (1) Federal statutes, regulations, and the terms and conditions of the Federal award that could have a direct and material effect on a Federal program; and

    (2) Any other Federal statutes and regulations that are identified in the Compliance Supplement; and

    (c) Funds, property, and other assets are safeguarded against loss from unauthorized use or disposition.

Oddly enough, this is exactly the issue Timberlane’s own auditors pointed out that we fell down doing – complying with the conditions of Federal program for equipment given to us or bought with Federal money.

“Basis for Qualified Opinion on CFDA No. 84.010 Title One Grants to Local Educational Agencies: As described in the accompanying schedule of findings and questioned costs, the Timberlane Regional School District did not comply with a requirement regarding CFDA No. 84.010  Title One Grants to Local Educational Agencies as described in finding number 2014-001 for Equipment and Real Property Management. Compliance with such a requirement is necessary, in our opinion, for the Timberlane Regional School District to comply with the requirements applicable to that program. ” (page 27 of the TRSD audit 2014, the most recent one available and not posted publicly.)

What else don’t we know?

Who knows what else about this rushed grant we don’t know. If I didn’t learn of this from another school district with a more robust commitment to transparency, I’d not even know this much. This is just one of the many problems with letting a subcommittee conduct its affairs in non-public to the exclusion of the rest of the board. The imaginable problems are countless because the board as a whole must operate on trust and faith rather than knowledge and facts when one of its sub-committees conducts its business in non-public to the exclusion of other board members.

Security: Yes;  Blind Faith, NO

There is no doubt security matters must be discussed in non-public. There is also no question that these non-public meetings should not exclude other members of the board who just so happen not to be assigned to these particular sub-committees.  If other members are content to operate on blind truth, that is their constituents’ loss.  I plan to do my job and trust is a luxury for non-elected persons.

Manchester Board of School Committee also approved a Homeland Security grant, but  their board had a detailed, written accounting of everything the grant money would be spent on as well as ALL the associated grant documents AND they posted this publicly.  Manchester B of SC Agendas   (See April 18, 2016 meeting materials.)

Is TRSD so transparent it is translucent, as Dr. Metzler claims?  Really?

Why are TRSD’s audits not on public pages of our website? Why aren’t the SAU audits on the public pages of the SAU site?

 

 

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Listen to my Supreme Court case live: UPDATE

Jan.8, 2016 UPDATE:

The court’s live streaming was not functioning yesterday.  So sorry for the frustration this caused.  A clerk at the court has assured me the video and audio recording from the trial will be available before the end of day today. I will post it on my blog the minute I learn it is available.

Please stay tuned!  The proceedings were fascinating and gave me enormous optimism.


 

Want to hear my Right-to-Know case being argued in New Hampshire’s Supreme Court tomorrow?  The Supreme Court live streams the oral arguments from their website, http://www.courts.state.nh.us/index.htm

Scroll to the bottom of the page and in the middle you will see the symbol for the Supreme Court which looks like the Parthenon. Clicking on that will bring you to the audio and video archives as well as another symbol of the court.  Clicking on the symbol will take you to live streaming of arguments.

Green v. SAU 55 et al will be argued around 1:30 PM January 7, 2016 and is scheduled to last approximately 30 minutes.

The video and audio archive of the arguments should be loaded to the site within 24 hours. I’ll link to it on this blog when it becomes available.

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Proposed Changes to RSA195:25 on Withdrawal

This week it is expected that the New Hampshire state legislature will be introducing House Bill 1303 and referring it to the Education Committee for hearings. House Bill 1303 clarifies some of the ambiguous language in RSA 195:25, 28 and 29 concerning a town withdrawing from a cooperative school district.

The proposed legislation attempts to clarify four points in the current legislation:

  1. Time of delivery of a minority report.  Current legislation says a minority report is to be submitted at the same time as a district report.  This left a minority report in limbo if no district report was done, or if it was submitted well before a minority report could be completed, or if a hostile withdrawal plan was submitted by the district. This clarifies that a report from the withdrawing town can always be submitted to the Board of Education.
  2. Capital Contribution payback. Current legislation is highly ambiguous. The demands of fairness require the withdrawing district to pay back capital contributions by the district to their town – but only in excess of what the town has paid in capital contributions to the other towns in the district.
  3. Capital forfeiture.  The current legislation is ambiguous as to what and when capital forfeiture applies.  The proposed change clarifies that the forfeiture begins upon the transfer of title to buildings and land in the withdrawing district.
  4. Approval of a withdrawal plan.  The current legislation leaves towns wishing to withdraw from a cooperative district open to threats, which was in fact used again Sandown in 2015.  The current legislation appears to allow a district to expel a town that merely undertook to explore withdrawal. (I don’t believe the Board of Education would permit this, but it is a logical possibility if not an actual one.) The proposed legislative change would require a majority vote by both the town that initiated withdrawal exploration AND the entire school district in order to effectuate a withdrawal.  This takes threats off the table and gives the withdrawing town an equal part in the final decision.

Here is a link to the current legislation with the proposed changes.  HB1303

Thanks go to Jim Devine, Chris True, Sandown State Reps, and Ken Weyler of Kingston, for sponsoring this bill. To those vocal on Citizens Against Withdrawal from Timberlane Facebook page (which, in an abundance of transparency, has completely blocked my access) please remember we live in a democracy where anyone can petition for changes to laws. This is neither sneaky, dishonest nor unethical and our representatives in the state legislature are doing their job. Yours is not the only opinion on matters and those who disagree with you are not evil.  Here are some comments from this Facebook page:

Kelly Ward: “…Very dangerous and reckless way to try and get your way.”

Debra Oxner Rose: What is wrong with them??

Michelle Livingston: They will not stop until they get their way, regardless of what’s right for Sandown and Timberlane.

Michelle Chagnon Lavoie: How did you find out that they were up to this? They are so damn sneaky and underhanded!

Kelly Ward: It was sent to me in an email as an FYI, so I put it up here. I know there’s not a lot we as citizens can do besides vote in REPs that actually represent us and not use the position as a means to forward their own agendas. So that is why we need to expose these REPs and the others for who they truly are. I will [not] go into naming names, but we need to keep a close eye on these people, they are devious.


Mr. Ward and others, what about the democratic process don’t you like?  Did we stack the Deliberative session with union members and then plant a shill to limit debate?  Did we spread unrealistic threats about being expelled from the district?  Do we use students and school facilities to make campaign advertising?

 

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Proliferation of Superintendent Advisory Committees at TRSD

The Superintendent has announced the latest Advisory Committee, this one for athletic facilities and program improvements.

The announcement  says: “Meet on a monthly basis beginning June 2015. Copies of meeting agendas and minutes shall be provided to the Superintendent.”

This, of course, suggests yet again that these meetings and its associated documents and minutes will not be subject to the Right to Know law – a completely untenable legal position for which the district has provided no written legal opinion.

Although motivated by good intentions and a laudable desire to address outstanding issues, it is abetting the subversion of the law for elected officials who are sworn to uphold the law to participate in these advisory committees when they conduct business outside of RSA 91-A.  Here are your elected officials who are members:

  • Lee Dube
  • Dennis Heffernan
  • Jack Sapia
  • Sue Sherman
  • Greg Spero

I expect these representatives to insist that all their meetings and documents be fully compliant with RSA 91-A. If the committee as a whole agrees otherwise, these elected officials should resign out of respect for the law and their constituents’ rights.

The announcement: ATHLETIC ADVISORY COMMITTEE MEMBERSHIP

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Our Bidding Policy Must Be Thrown Out

There is something seriously misguided with how we handle contracts in our district.  I only just discovered how misguided.

Our current bidding policy, changed just last year, does not require a contract, once awarded, to ever be put out to bid again. Feeling uncomfortable about our policy, I took a look at the New Hampshire School Boards Association’s recommended Bidding Policy.  My jaw nearly impaled my chest.

The School Boards Association suggested policy says this:

  • ALL contracts of $5,000 or more must be put out to competitive bid
  • All bids are to be addressed to the board (and presumably opened by the board)
  • the board approves or rejects bids
  • the district enters into the contract, which means the board signs the contract, not the superintendent.

Timberlane’s Bidding Requirements (DJE) policy say this:

  • First-time contracts of $10,000 or more must be put out to bid
  • Bids are opened by the superintendent
  • Bids are accepted or rejected by the superintendent
  • Specialized educational and related services are exempt from the bidding policy
  • Existing services that continue to meet the needs of the district do not need to go out to bid.

WHAT TIMBERLANE’S POLICY DOESN’T SAY:

  • The school board shall open bids in public
  • The school board shall accept or reject bids
  • A vote of the school board shall be the sole authorizing authority on all district contracts

Our bidding policy has left everything in the hands of the superintendent and taken your elected representatives right out of the loop. Our policy also authorizes contracts for life with a single one-year contract, and don’t think that doesn’t happen. Our athletic trainer contract was not put out to bid for 28 years. (Thank you Dr. Metzler for selecting a new provider two years ago.) The FLES consultant’s contract could be the next. (See April 6th post, Mrs. Metzler’s Contract Renewed for Five Years.”.)

Almost all bids are opened without any knowledge of the board.  Many contracts are signed without any knowledge of the board as a whole and contract renewals seem to go completely unnoticed by the board for the most part. The board does not see facilities contracts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Terms of the recent FLES consulting contract renewal for $250,000 was not revealed to the board. In my one year on the board, I remember voting on only one contract — a one-year Public Relations consultant’s contract for $18,000.

Even major contracts, like food service, are without board overview. Here’s a quote for the June 5, 2014 minutes:   ‘Motion: Mrs. Green motioned to delay approving the Food Service contract until the contract is reviewed by the board. The motion failed for lack of a second.’

TRSD’s Purchasing Policy (DJ) says in part : “The Business Administrator will be solely responsible for the final approval of all non-educational purchases.  The Superintendent or his/her designee will approve educational purchases beyond budget limitations.”

This purchasing policy may be why facilities improvement and maintenance contracts, food service contracts, and others are not signed by the school board – leaving the board to approve educational contracts such as consultants and athletic trainers. If I think I’ve finally got it figured out, why, then, did the board approve the Public Relations contract? That isn’t educational.  Or maybe the board only ever approves first time contracts and not subsequent contracts?  Or maybe the board approves consultants while the SAU approves contractors?

Whatever the logic is that I’ve yet to discover, to my mind it is fundamentally irresponsible for the school board to not be reviewing and approving substantial contracts that bind the taxpayers to financial obligations. If nothing else, it is a check and balance on the administration. The board doesn’t even have knowledge of the bidding process or the number of bids received before a contract is awarded. Would you allow your selectmen to run your town this way?

Here is the  New Hampshire School Boards Association Recommended Language for “Bidding Requirements,” DJE. Please compare it to Timberlane’s immediately below it.

All contracts for, and purchases of supplies, materials, equipment, and contractual services in the amount of $5,000 or more, shall be based, when feasible, on at least three competitive bids. All purchases less than $5,000 in amount may be made in the open market but shall, when possible, be based on at least three competitive quotations or prices. All purchases made in the open market shall be completed after careful pricing.

When bidding procedures are used, bids shall be advertised appropriately. Suppliers shall be invited to have their names placed on mailing lists to receive invitations to bid. When specifications are prepared, they will be mailed to all merchants and firms who have indicated an interest in bidding.

All bids must be submitted in sealed envelopes, addressed to the Board, and plainly marked with the name of the bid and the time of the bid opening. Bids shall be opened at the time specified and all bidders and other persons shall be invited to be present.

The Board reserves the right to reject any or all bids and to accept that bid which appears to be in the best interest of the District. The Board reserves the right to waive any formalities in, or reject, any or all bids or any part of any bid. Any bid may be withdrawn prior to the scheduled time for the opening of bids. Any bid received after the time and date specified shall not be considered. The Board also reserves the right to negotiate with a bidder when all bids exceed the budgeted appropriation.

The bidder to whom the award is made shall be required to enter into a written contract with the District.

Here is Timberlane’s Bidding Policy:

BIDDING REQUIREMENTS
The Superintendent is required to get written competitive bids on purchases of supplies, materials, equipment, and contractual services in the amount of $10,000 or more. As a general rule, purchases of $1,000 or more per item will require at least three competitive documented quotes for the open market. All purchases made in the open market shall be consummated after careful evaluation.
When bidding procedures are used, bids shall be advertised appropriately. Suppliers shall be invited to have their names placed on mailing lists to receive invitations to bid. When specifications are prepared, they will be mailed to all merchants and firms who have indicated an interest in bidding.
All bids must be submitted in sealed envelopes, addressed to the Superintendent, and plainly marked with the name of the bid and the time of the bid opening. Bids shall be opened at the time specified and all bidders and other persons shall be invited to be present.
The Superintendent reserves the right to reject any or all bids and to accept that bid which appears to be in the best interest of the district. The Superintendent also reserves the right to waive any formalities in, or reject, any or all bids or any part of any bid. Any bid may be withdrawn prior to the scheduled time for the opening of bids. Any bid received after the time and date specified, shall not be considered. The Superintendent also reserves the right to negotiate with a bidder when all bids exceed the budgeted appropriation.
The bidder to whom the award is made shall be required to enter into a written contract with the district with appropriate bonding. Contractors shall be required to provide a certificate of insurance.
Specialized educational and related services are exempt from this policy when the interests of children so dictate (i.e. textbook purchases, psychological services, etc.).
Existing services that continue to meet the needs of the district shall be subject to an annual review and may not need to go out to bid.

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Mrs. Metzler’s Contract Renewed for Five Years: Count the ways this is wrong

Mrs. Metzler’s consulting contract was renewed for 5 years and a total expense of $250,000. This renewal was “problematic” in two ways.

  • ONE:  The board did NOT vote on this contract amendment;
  • TWO:  multi-year contracts are not permitted without a vote of the legislative body – in others words, multi-year contracts must go to warrant and be approved by voters.

Sneaky doesn’t begin to describe how this contract renewal was handled.  I, a board member, didn’t even know it had been renewed until nearly five months after the fact. This is how that happened.

Realizing that the contract was up for renewal on April 1, 2015, and having heard something that suggested it was already a done deal by watching the March 5th school board meeting Vimeo,* I inquired after it at the March 19th board meeting and learned the contract had been renewed for 5 years. Then I pressed to see the contract which was subsequently released on the board’s confidential Sharepoint site. To my utter astonishment, the contract had been signed by Chairman Steenson in October 2014.

School board chairmen have no authority to sign contracts without an explicit vote of the board.

FLES contract renewal 5 yrs.

Indifference and apathy on the board and in the public allow these abuses of power to continue.

*I was absent for the last part of the March 5th meeting when Superintendent Metzler made the revealing statement.

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