Franklin council hears grievances against school board members, will not initiate removal

Laste modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Franklin’s city council voted last night not to act on two petitions to remove school board members from office but instead to send the transcript of a public hearing on the petitions to the attorney general’s office.

“We think the concerns are serious enough that someone at the state level who does have the authority to remove people from office should consider all the matters that have been brought before us,” Mayor Ken Merrifield said.

The hearing was held in response to two petitions filed with the council in June asking councilors to unseat board members Ray Yonaitis and Kathleen Russo. The school district attempted to block the council from holding the hearing, but Superior Court Judge Richard McNamara ruled yesterday that the hearing could move forward. However, his opinion also said the city council likely has no legal ability to actually remove board members. That, in part, led to the council’s decision not to initiate removal proceedings but instead to send the complaints to the state.

During the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, only three people spoke up in favor of the board members, including their attorney, Katherine Miller. More than a dozen residents stood up to criticize the board members, as well as Superintendent Maureen Ward, in speeches that were at times emotional. Although the petitions were sparked by the removal of former high school football coach Greg Husband, residents lodged other complaints touching on special education, adherence to board policies and the spending of taxpayer dollars on legal defense for Yonaitis and Russo.

Resident Elizabeth Tobey at the beginning of the meeting urged the council, school board and residents to handle disputes maturely. She said she believes the board followed all legal procedures when removing Husband and that the constant fighting will only undo recent improvements in the schools.

“Enough is enough, do not undo Franklin schools’ forward progress,” she said.

But Tamara Feener, a school board member, said the board is dysfunctional. Five board members emailed Yonaitis last week requesting a meeting to discuss several issues, including special education plans. Yonaitis did not accommodate the meeting, she said. She said Russo and Yonaitis only follow policies that suit their needs, and she requested they step down from their roles as board chairmen.

“I think they should look deep within themselves and let others run our meetings, and go by the policies that are before us,” she said.

Several parents offered stories about their children’s experiences with 504 plans, which are accommodations for students with disabilities. Jason Grevior said he had to battle with the administration to make sure his son’s 504 for a hearing disability was handled properly.

“I used to be the SAU’s biggest fan – I became their biggest critic when they failed to put that 504 in place,” he said.

Jen Weaver, a teacher in the district, had harsh words for the board, saying the lack of maturity and respect was embarrassing for the city. She was one of several speakers who said she would consider moving out of the district if she thought her house would sell.

“If I don’t allow this in my second-grade classroom, folks, this should not be allowed as adults,” she said.

Several speakers were also angry that the district’s legal expenses are coming from taxpayers. School board minutes say the district’s lawsuit attempting to stop the public hearing would cost $5,000 to $7,000. The minutes also say that under the city charter, Yonaitis and Russo are each afforded $20,000 to $25,000 for lawyers.

Donna Magoon, a teacher who recently resigned, said she spent $500 to $700 of her own money each year purchasing classroom supplies. She said it was “shameful” that students could lose out on $50,000 paid in legal fees. It is not clear how much money has been spent on legal fees at this time, but Miller, the attorney, says it has not hit that mark.

At the end of the meeting, three councilors also voiced their own concerns. Doug Boyd said the school board should have given Husband a second chance because he had a positive influence on students. Councilor Bob Desrochers then directed criticism at Russo.

“You have kids here that show more intelligence than people on the school board,” he said as he looked directly at her.

Russo declined to comment after the meeting. Yonaitis was unable to attend, but commented via email.

“I recognize that this is a process engineered by my political enemies to intimidate me into resigning but I am determined, regardless of the toll it takes on me personally to do what I was elected to do in the best interests of the students in Franklin,” he said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)