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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 kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

Legacy Comments14

Consider these facts. CSI Charter School was organized primarily by David Longnecker, who was a MVSD board member at the time, and by Mike Martin, superintendent of SAU 46. Seelye Longnecker was and is a teacher at the Charter school. Mike Martin, David Longnecker and Asst. Superintendent Chris Barry were board trustees for the charter school. Shortly after Ms. Longnecker was appointed to the MVSD school board, Mike Martin and Chris Barry resigned from that board. When Ms. Longnecker was appointed to the board, the Charter school was recognized as being in SAU 46. The websites for MVSD and charter school have since been changed so that that information is not apparent. The charter school is still listed under "other locations" for SAU 46. In 2007 MVSD voters were asked by warrant article to support the creation of a public charter school (CSI). Some MVSD students regularly attend classes at the Charter School. And the school board members say the Charter School is a completely seperate entity!!!!!

Consider this the CSI Charter School is a valuable tool to help learners who have additional needs traditional high schools are not designed for.

I agree that the charter school is very valuable. I was simply pointing out the fact that Ms. Longnecker is a teacher at the charter school and therefore should not be a school board member for MVSD. Too much of a conflict

"seeing wrongdoing where none exists". Remember the article in the Monitor this past summer that talked about MVSD hiring reatives for unposted positions. This is not wrong? Mr. Godfrey is only one of four board members whose spouse is employed by the district. The meeting minutes clearly show that these members DO NOT recuse themselves regarding financial issues that could affect their spouse. This is not wrong? the budget in the district has increased 97% since 2001. The transportation budget has increased 160% since 2001. Transportation employees has doubled since 2001. MVSD number of employees has increased by more than 100 since 2001. Student enrollment has DECREASED by 145 in the last seven years. We should not ask questions? WAKE UP TAXPAYERS!!!!!

I do remember that...http://www.concordmonitor.com/home/8078471-95/taxpayers-question-hiring-practices-for-temporary-workers-at-merrimack-valley

Our Selectmen are responsible to the taxpayers. Therefore, it is their sworn duty to question any expenditures by any department, including the schools. I would hope that everyone realizes the schools outspend every other department combined. Finding wasted tax money is not necessarily finding wrong-doing, even though one can make that connection, especially when there are obvious conflicts at play. The transportation issue is a good point. There is a reason why most districts use First Student or some other contractor to bus the kids. If Godfrey feels dealing with the public and the Selectmen from the towns served by Merrimack Valley, is a distraction or interruption, he should resign. Just the fact his wife is a teacher should be cause for the voters to suspect his motives. What part of conflict of interest do you not understand? Educating the students is an important part of being a school board member, but so is watching out for the taxpayers interests. Being a patsy for the teachers union is not.

So by your logic, a resident (tax payer) within the district who is married to a teacher who works in the same district should be in eligible to run for school board in that district? This IS America, right? Home of the free?

You are a very trusting individual. To think that a person setting on a board that can vote themselves a pay raise (his wife's paycheck), better health benefits, time off, retirement, etc... and not be influenced by that is mighty trusting. Trusting might not be the right word. Yes he can be on the board, just not vote on things that he would "personally" benefit from.

This is hilariously sad, the MVSD is one of the better school districts in the state, the programs run by the various administrations are student focused and and high demanding. It is no wonder this country is falling behind educationally when community members spend more time worrying about who is painting the walls in the summer and how they can save money instead of ensuring our community has the best tools and resources to support all students. This is creating such a pollution and it is starting to have negative impacts on the students. The Salisbury Education Committee should of taken the hint when the vote when down swifty by registered voters on the voting list. They thought they "bussed" in all the teachers to vote is crazy, the reason you saw so many teachers in attendance is because they love this community and have moved into district to become apart of it. Thanks for the laugh though, I am sure the replies to this post will be just as enjoyable

MVSD is a good school, but I looked it up under several different statistic sights and it is not as high rated as you may think.

If another comment is allowed by myself, I would like to say that I am not a monster or a trouble maker. If the school board, the school district and sau have done nothing unethical or illegal, than the truth will set them free. I have the e-mail that Mr. Hutchins sent, and the e-mail I sent to the school board and am willing to share it. I can be reached at andrus_louise @yahoo.com. Also in my other comment I indicated asking about the number of people in MVSD that are related. I would like to correct that count to include the school board, MVSD and SAU 46.

Ross-Raymond isn't the distraction. The distraction is the board's unwillingness to give him the information. When officials of a board refuse to quickly reply to information requests...well you all are smart enough to draw your own conclusions. Hey honey why did it take you so long at the market today? Get the picture?

Not all facts are stated. For example: 1.Read MVSD Minutes: Dec 2012, Jan 2013, Feb 2013. "Financial Report"-Motion passed unanimously. Board members voted on financial reports that included monies that would have pertained to their relatives. No one recused themselves. Board members certainly have a right to vote, but all school board members voted at the annual meeting 2013 on the "amendment to reduce the budget." I have the voting checklists that prove this. This could have had an impact on their relatives if the budget had been reduced. They should have recused. B. Ask Mr. Godfrey about the dissent and culture at the high school? Mr. Godfrey uses the words "transparency" quite frequently. The board is not transparent with the public. C. If Mr. Hutchins has a "tiff" with Ken Ross-Raymond then he should have gone to Mr. Ross-Raymond and not through the Administrative Assistant. How unethical? D. I realize people are related in "public employment" that is not a problem, but ask Mr. Godfrey for the number of people in the MVSD that are related and how many of the top positions that they are related. Transportation is one of them.

Oh, they're transparent, alright; we can see right through them! Time for a change!

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