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Franklin school board questions city council's authority over open seat

Members of Franklin’s city council and school board are at odds once again, this time over who has the authority to fill school board vacancies.

On Monday night, the council appointed Charles Carey to a recently vacated seat. Carey has been a vocal critic of the school board’s decision to fire Franklin High School coach Greg Husband in April after unsportsmanlike conduct at the championship football game in the fall. Carey has lived in Franklin for about 15 years and has two children in the school district. He applied for the seat because he thinks the school district needs to be more open.

“I think it’s time to bring some transparency to the board,” he said.

The open seat was vacated last week by Brian Boynton, who is moving to South Carolina. The council listed the vacancy on its website June 4 and said it could be filled at Monday’s meeting. The council has historically made appointments to fill such vacancies, but this time the school board sought an opinion from its legal counsel, who said that authority lies with the board.

Carey was the only person to apply for the seat in the window it was open. The council voted, 7-1, to appoint him, with Councilor Scott Clarenbach casting the opposing vote. Clarenbach said he believes it is the council’s job to make appointments, but he thought filling the seat so quickly would do more to fuel the divide between the council and school board.

“I didn’t think there was any urgent need for us to fill the position in six days,” he said.

The majority of current school board members, including Chairman Ray Yonaitis, were at one time appointed by the council, said Mayor Ken Merrifield. The board has never raised a concern on this subject, he said. Yonaitis did not respond to a request for comment but did tell the New Hampshire Union Leader he thought the council’s move was illegal.

Melissa Hewey, counsel for the school board, sent a letter to Merrifield dated June 10, saying pursuant to a state statute, it is the board’s responsibility to fill vacancies. That law, however, appears to apply only to school boards in towns, not cities, as it references annual meetings and selectmen, said Barrett Christina, staff attorney for the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

The school board cites that same law and another referencing cooperative school districts in its own policy for filing vacancies. That is at odds with the city charter, which says the council has the power to fill board, council and ward officer vacancies. Merrifield also pointed to a state statute governing cities that states the city council has the authority to appoint people to board vacancies.

It is unclear who on the board sought a legal opinion, but board member Peter Heath said he was not part of any discussions about it.

Carey, the appointee, spoke at a May 20 school board meeting in support of Husband, the football coach. The board fired Husband after receiving a warning from the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association saying it would be closely monitoring the conduct of Franklin athletes. Since that meeting, a former Franklin football player has circulated a petition to have Yonaitis and Kathleen Russo, chairwoman of the SAU board, removed from office. It received more than 100 signatures, which the city council verified.

Merrifield said the council will seek legal advice on how to respond to the petition.

The fight over Carey’s appointment is just the latest in continued sparring between the school board and the city council. Earlier this year, a move by the council to consolidate the city and school district finances was put on hold when it drew ire from a few board members. The council was also angry over delayed submission of financial documents crucial to setting the tax rate in the fall.

In November, both sides agreed to a joint meeting to discuss long-standing tensions, but it has yet to occur.

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

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