Tensions escalate between Salisbury selectman, Merrimack Valley School Board
If you ask Salisbury Selectman Ken Ross-Raymond, the Merrimack Valley School Board is rife with corruption. Through right-to-know requests, formal complaints to the attorney general’s office, public comments and numerous conversations, he paints a picture of a district where nepotism reigns, costs are spiraling out of control and board members care little about the burden they’re putting on taxpayers.
Ask the Merrimack Valley School Board members, however, and they say a small group of Salisbury residents are seeing wrongdoing where none exists. In the process of trying to expose it, some board members say, this small group is diminishing the district’s accomplishments, degrading board members and employees, and, in many cases, simply wasting school officials’ time.
“Salisbury is our smallest town, and right now they take up an inordinate amount of our time,” said Tom Godfrey, board chairman and a Webster resident.
The relationship between the board and a handful of Salisbury residents has been strained for several years – an education committee that formed in 2011 vocally opposed the International Baccalaureate program and championed a failed $1 million budget cut last spring – but tensions have reached a new high in recent months. Ross-Raymond, chairman of the board of selectmen, and a few others have suggested numerous times that district officials privatize Merrimack Valley’s student transportation system to cut costs. He and two others have filed at least 30 requests for information with the district in the past four months on this and other topics. They’ve also filed at least five formal complaints with the state attorney general’s office alleging violations of election and conflict-of-interest laws.
While these accusations and suggestions haven’t stopped the board from carrying out its duties, they are taking time away from focusing on education, Godfrey said. Some members’ frustration with the situation was recently documented in an email from Salisbury School Board member Mark Hutchins to the town’s administrative assistant, who had invited him and the other Salisbury board member to attend an upcoming selectmen’s meeting.
“It appears that (Ross-Raymond’s) only mission in life now is to discredit the school district and to cut the school budget, without regard to impact on school employees and students,” Hutchins wrote. “His repeated ‘right-to-know’ requests are a slap in the face to our hard-working, conscientious employees and your school board, and are mean-spirited insinuations of wrong-doing and downright cheating and lying. . . . Given the confrontation approach that has been taken by Ken, do you wonder why Seelye (Longnecker) and I are hesitant to attend a selectmen’s meeting?”
He went on to say he expected the meeting to be full of the same accusations he and other board members have heard over and over. But, he said, he and Longnecker will attend the meeting because they have a responsibility as elected officials to the people they represent.
Salisbury resident Louise Andrus, who also frequently requests information, read the email and has called for Hutchins and Longnecker to resign, but Ross-Raymond said he doesn’t think that’s necessary. The selectmen asked the school board members to attend the meeting because a few members of Salisbury’s budget committee had questions, Ross-Raymond said. This was not stated in the email to Hutchins and Longnecker, he said.
Ross-Raymond said he continues requesting information because he believes he has a responsibility to the taxpayers and that he speaks for those who are afraid to. The board frequently says Merrimack Valley’s cost-per-pupil is $1,400 below state average, but Ross-Raymond thinks they can do the same with less. For more than a year, he has suggested the board explore privatizing transportation. The board has repeatedly said it does not want to do this for several reasons, including the possibility of costs rising once the district locks into a contract. Last month, Godfrey said the transportation committee could look into this again, although he is not supportive of privatizing services.
“It’s just been a lot of excuses,” Ross-Raymond said.
Beyond this, Ross-Raymond has formally filed complaints with the attorney general’s office alleging board members have violated conflict of interest laws by failing to recuse themselves from votes that may affect family members and failed to check identification at the March annual meeting (they believe the meetings are dominated by teachers). They also allege the board violated those laws by appointing Longnecker, a teacher at the CSI charter school, to the school board. He has requested Godfrey step down as chairman because the board limits questions during the public comment portion of its meetings.
The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Board members deny accusations of conspiracies to pad the pockets of their family members and intentionally violate policies. Godfrey, whose wife is a teacher, said he’s recused himself from every discussion or vote on contracts, although he couldn’t say with 100 percent certainty that others have as well, and it’s unclear from meeting minutes. Both the board and the Department of Education said CSI is a separate entity from the district and under its own budget and leadership.
Overall, Godfrey said the board recognizes its responsibility to answer questions and be open with the public. But as chairman, he’s decided to limit the exchange between the public and board members during meetings. He believes it is the board’s job, not the public’s, to handle the details of running the school district, and that these requests from Ross-Raymond and others are a distraction.
“If you look at the level of detail of their requests and of their comments, they want to guide the board in the most minute details, and that’s not what a board’s function is,” he said. “We take the input of the public as a whole, and we act on that using our best judgment.”
Hutchins, who has been on the school board for 14 years, said this is the worst relationship he’s ever seen between the board and the town. Selectmen from other towns have urged the board to remember the taxpayer and have asked critical questions, but not to the same degree as in Salisbury. Hutchins said he understands the towns have concerns about rising costs, but he doesn’t appreciate the adversarial nature of the board’s relationship with Ross-Raymond and others.
“They have a right to ask questions, and we have an obligation to respond, and that’s certainly what we try to do,” he said. “It’s just, it’s disappointing with the level of distrust.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)