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Franklin School Board, City Council to hold joint meeting to address conflicts

The Franklin School Board and City Council are planning a meeting to address long-standing tensions between them.

The conflict has existed for decades, and members of both groups say it is creating an image problem for the city.

“There is no good outcome from this whole thing,” said Councilor Paul Trudel. “It’s not right for the community, it’s not right for the school.”

School Board Chairman Ray Yonaitis and others characterized some of the problems as personal. “We have some members from both sides that don’t get along, and they forget that when you cross that door and you’re sitting on the board or the council, your personality is no longer allowed to control it,” he said. “You have to take in the best interest of what you’re there for.”

Trudel, a member of the City and School Liaison Committee, stood up at the Nov. 19 school board meeting and suggested a formal meeting between all members. Both school board members and city councilors in the audience expressed a desire to hold the meeting as soon as possible. No formal date is set, but Yonaitis and Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield have been discussing logistics. The superintendent and city manager will be invited, and it may be moderated by former Franklin mayor David Palfrey. The meeting will be open to the public.

A big source of the conflict is Franklin’s governance structure. The city council controls the total amount of money in the district’s budget each year. Once that money is in the district’s hands, however, the council has no say in how it is spent, which can lead to disagreements. Councilor Scott Clarenbach compared it to a parent who gives a child $20 to go to the movies, and the child spends it on something else. The parent can’t control how the child ultimately spends the money, but they might still get mad about it.

Recently, that tension has manifested itself in arguments over how to spend surpluses, what services to cut and financial recording and auditing.

Most members say they aren’t content to let the battle rage on because they fear it could make both sides ineffective and hurt the community. They say the upcoming meeting is a welcome step toward a resolution, even if it’s just the beginning.

“I’m staying positive with it,” said Councilor Bob Desrochers. “It’s not insurmountable, but we have to get past – on both sides – the us and them attitude.”

Here are some of the recent conflicts between the two groups:

∎ When the school district decided to close the Bessie Rowell Elementary School in the spring of 2011 to close a $1.9 million budget gap, councilors said there was not enough public input before the decision was announced.

∎ This past summer, the district decided how to spend a $370,000 surplus without consulting the city, but the board maintained the city only sets the bottom line and did not need to be consulted.

∎ The school district is behind on several financial forms, which councilors feared could delay the setting of the tax rate earlier this fall. The rate was set on time, but the district is still behind on forms, including the Fiscal Year 2011 audit, which is more than a year late. School officials say the delay is a result of poor recording in years past.

∎ The school district is taking major strides toward improvement, including raising test scores and changing the way teachers teach, board members said, and they find it insulting when the councilors say they don’t know how to spend their money.

Aside from the board-wide concerns, SAU 18 Board Chairwoman Kathleen Russo, also a Franklin School Board member, filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office against fellow board member Tamara Feener. Russo alleges that Feener can’t legally serve as a board member and city moderator simultaneously. Feener is also the wife of longtime City Councilor Glen Feener.

Russo said she filed the complaint in her role as board chairwoman, not on behalf of the entire SAU board, but some city councilors are questioning whether she violated board rules by doing so. Many board members did not know about the complaint until they read about it in the newspaper. The attorney general’s office has not ruled on the complaint yet.

These conflicts generate bad press and create an image problem for the city, members of both sides said.

“ ‘It’s not good for the city,’ is an understatement,” Desrochers said. “You can put the city in a good light 15 times a day, but if you have two negative comments those 15 times just went out the window. It just destroyed everything anyone tried to build.”

The two sides are already making strides toward improving the relationship through the City and School Liaison Committee. It was re-established this year to create a forum for both sides to try to understand each other. The committee has six members, with three appointees from each side, and has met about five or six times this year. The meetings are public but offer a more informal setting for discussion than through the public comment portions of school board and city council meetings.

“I think the purpose was just to be able to better communicate between the two groups because neither school board meetings or city council meetings are always the best vehicle to be able to have a full airing of issues,” said Keith Lohmann, a school board member on the liaison committee.

“Clearly the community will move forward when we act as a community,” he said. “And you know clearly there are differences of opinion from time to time between the school board and the city council; we have different constituencies and we advocate different positions sometimes, but I think you can do that and look out for the community as a whole at the same time.”

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

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