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Franklin’s school board votes to take legal action against city hours after joint city-school meeting

  • From left: Peter Heath, Al Warner, Paul Trudel and George Dzujna listen to Tony Giunta speak during a joint meeting between members of the Franklin city council and school board at the Franklin Opera House in Franklin on Wednesday, July 17, 2013.  The meeting was moderated by Don Jutton, President of Municipal Resources. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    From left: Peter Heath, Al Warner, Paul Trudel and George Dzujna listen to Tony Giunta speak during a joint meeting between members of the Franklin city council and school board at the Franklin Opera House in Franklin on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The meeting was moderated by Don Jutton, President of Municipal Resources.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • School board chairman Ray Yonaitis (middle) speaks during a joint meeting between members of the Franklin city council and school board at the Franklin Opera House in Franklin on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The meeting between the two parties was moderated by Don Jutton (far right), President of Municipal Resources.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    School board chairman Ray Yonaitis (middle) speaks during a joint meeting between members of the Franklin city council and school board at the Franklin Opera House in Franklin on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The meeting between the two parties was moderated by Don Jutton (far right), President of Municipal Resources.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • From left: Peter Heath, Al Warner, Paul Trudel and George Dzujna listen to Tony Giunta speak during a joint meeting between members of the Franklin city council and school board at the Franklin Opera House in Franklin on Wednesday, July 17, 2013.  The meeting was moderated by Don Jutton, President of Municipal Resources. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • School board chairman Ray Yonaitis (middle) speaks during a joint meeting between members of the Franklin city council and school board at the Franklin Opera House in Franklin on Wednesday, July 17, 2013. The meeting between the two parties was moderated by Don Jutton (far right), President of Municipal Resources.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

Franklin’s school board plans to file a lawsuit to prevent the city council from responding to a citizen petition to oust board members Ray Yonaitis and Kathleen Russo from office. The school board voted on this action last night just hours after a joint meeting with the city council to begin working out long-standing tensions between the two groups.

A former Franklin High School student filed a petition with the council in June to remove the two board members after the controversial firing of football Coach Greg Husband. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon verified signatures on the motion and the council had scheduled a public hearing regarding the petitions. The date of that public hearing is not listed on the city’s website. Filing the lawsuit will cost between $5,500 and $7,000, board member Peter Heath said. Heath and fellow board members Tamara Feener and Ed Cogan voted against the motion. Yonaitis and Russo voted in favor of filing the lawsuit, Heath said.

Depending on the outcome of the lawsuit, the school board could be on the hook for future legal expenses for Yonaitis and Russo, Heath said. Russo deferred questions last night to Yonaitis, who could not be reached.

When asked about the petition several weeks ago, Mayor Ken Merrifield said the council would be getting legal advice on how to handle the petition.

The vote came after a special school board meeting with legal council held at the administrative offices. Earlier that evening, school board members and city councilors had a three-hour meeting at city hall that has been in the works for eight months. The purpose of the meeting was to establish common ground and move past the negativity that has characterized the boards’ relationship for years. Members from both sides left the meeting saying they felt confident that a stronger, more positive relationship was possible.

“It’s not this group versus that group, because we are all in the same city, we are all citizens of this city,” said Tony Giunta, former mayor and a newly appointed councilor.

Feener said the outcome of the school board meeting was disappointing given the progress made at the earlier joint meeting.

Before the meeting, moderator Don Jutton of Municipal Resources, Yonaitis and Merrifield agreed that rehashing past disagreements would not be the focus of the meeting. Rather, both groups would discuss how to move the city forward. Members of both sides stayed on topic for the most part, only hinting occasionally at past issues.

“You can beat the past to death and that, frankly, is the Franklin story,” Jutton said.

The forward-looking discussion centered on increasing revenue, strengthening leadership and improving the outside world’s perception of the city.

When Jutton asked everyone to rate the relationship between the two groups on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the highest, no one ranked it higher than a 3. Everyone at the table expressed hope that the relationship could improve if both groups focus on helping the city rather than fighting with each other.

“I think we can make it a 5,” Heath said.

During the meeting, Jutton also asked everyone to state how they think Franklin residents perceive the city, how the rest of the state perceives the city, and what they want the city to look like in five years. There was a consensus that residents tend to see Franklin more positively than outsiders. Words and phrases such as “safe,” “city on the move” and “great place to move” were used to describe how the group hopes people see Franklin in five years.

At the end of the meeting, both groups agreed to meet on a regular basis. Members from both sides said the meeting was a step in the right direction toward improving the relationship.

“I think it’s a great beginning,” Russo said.

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

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