Salisbury residents’ claim against school district heard in court

Monitor staff
Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Following months of motions to object, amend or reschedule the case, two Salisbury residents finally had their day in court on a right-to-know lawsuit against Merrimack Valley School District.

But their fight is not over.

Louise Andrus and Ken Ross-Raymond, both of Salisbury, sued the school district arguing the school board has conducted open business inaudibly, in nonpublic sessions or inappropriately by secret ballot.

Andrus and Ross-Raymond want the court to acknowledge the school board’s violations and help prevent future abuses.

The school district, through its attorneys at the Drummond Woodsum law firm, twice tried to have the lawsuit dismissed but were ultimately unsuccessful.

After delays in May and June, a hearing was held this month and an order is expected from Judge Diane Nicolosi in the next two weeks.

The allegations

Andrus and Ross-Raymond accused the school board of violating the law on May 10, 2004, for voting to appoint someone to a vacant position during a nonpublic session.

Other allegations include the board appointing current member and Salisbury representative Seelye Longnecker to a vacant position by secret ballot on March 11, 2013.

They also accuse the board of entering nonpublic session in numerous meetings to deliberate on candidates for vacant positions.

In addition, Andrus and Ross-Raymond say the board had spoken inaudibly at various meetings, and on August 10, 2015, former member Will Renauld turned his head and raised his hands to cover his mouth to speak to the board chair.

In their petition, Andrus and Ross-Raymond asked the judge to find the school district had violated RSA 91-A (or the right-to-know law) and to prevent future violations by issuing an order to the board compelling it to comply with the law.

Courts can compel municipal officials to go to right to know training if violations are severe enough.

Both Salisbury residents had submitted an initial 160-page complaint – without any legal representation – in January.

The response

The Merrimack Valley School District responded with a motion to dismiss on March 2 arguing that Andrus and Ross-Raymond failed to specify a claim for which relief could be granted.

After the pair submitted their cleaned-up, much shorter amended petition, the school district filed another motion to dismiss the case March 25.

Nicolosi dismissed one part of the suit, accusing the the school district of allowing Longnecker to pass out campaign materials within the polling during the 2015 election, cheating her opponent, Andrus, of a free and fair election. It’s up to the attorney general’s office to determine such violations, not plaintiffs in civil cases, the judge said.

“The statute provides the attorney general with standing to pursue violations of the restriction against distributing campaign materials at a polling place, but does not provide standing for a private cause of action,” Nicolosi wrote.

Nicolosi allowed the rest of the suit to proceed despite Drummond Woodsum attorneys’ arguments that the claims were moot or were brought up in court too many years after they occured.

“Plaintiffs do not seek to remove the individuals appointed to the Board positions during the nonpublic sessions and through the secret ballot at issue. Rather, they seek to enjoin the Board from future violations . . . (the) claim is not moot.”

Nicolosi also disagreed with the district’s argument that there is “no minimum auditory standard for the meetings,” saying RSA 91-A, the right to know law, requires that public meetings be audible or discernable.

An order had not yet been filed in Concord District Court Tuesday afternoon. It is due 30 days from the hearing date.

Past challenges

This is not the first time Andrus and Ross-Raymond have sought out more access to public information within Merrimack Valley School District. Both have voiced their concerns at school board meetings and in complaints to the attorney general’s office in the past.

Andrus sent letters to the attorney general last year, for instance, that successfully resulted in two cease-and-desist letters regarding polling hours that were too short, and the alleged electioneering by Longnecker.

Ross-Raymond, who is also the chairman of the Salisbury select board, had petitioned an article onto this past year’s town meeting warrant asking voters to begin the process of withdrawing Salisbury from the Merrimack Valley School District.

After receiving a mostly negative reaction to that idea, however, Ross-Raymond made a motion at the town meeting to table that warrant article indefinitely.