Salisbury residents win right-to-know suit against Merrimack Valley School District

  • Two Salisbury residents filed a right-to-know lawsuit against Merrimack Valley School District, and in a Sept. 2 order, a judge agreed the district committed several violations. ELODIE REED—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

In perhaps a rare event, both sides of a right-to-know lawsuit are satisfied with the outcome.

Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Diane Nicolosi agreed with Salisbury residents Louise Andrus and Ken Ross-Raymond that Merrimack Valley School District made several right-to-know law violations during school board meetings.

These violations, from 2004 to January 2016, included the school board entering nonpublic sessions or using a secret ballot to appoint people to vacant board seats, as well as the board discussing employee resignations in nonpublic meetings.

In her Sept. 2 ruling, the judge ordered the school district to stop these practices, awarding Andrus and Ross-Raymond their desired outcome. And that, said SAU 46 Superintendent Mark MacLean, is fine by the district, too.

“Really, it turned out as expected – we have an understanding that in the past, the board went into nonpublic to discuss board seats,” he said Monday. “We agree that should have not been done, and we will no longer do that.”

Court documents note that the school board had already made permanent changes to stop discussing and filling vacant board seats during nonpublic meetings or by secret ballot, a practice that went on as late as July 2015.

The practice of discussing resignations of employees in closed sessions – which, unlike dismissals or investigations, don’t have the potential to affect the reputation of the individual – amounted to a misreading of the right-to-know law, MacLean said.

“That was really kind of based on our interpretation of the statute,” he said. “As a lay board, language can be translated in various ways. We have not done so since we understood that new translation.”

The only allegation Nicolosi did not find supported was Andrus’s claim that the school board often conducted meetings in an inaudible manner, in violation of the right-to-know law.

Even though it is not ordered by the court to do so, MacLean said the school district is looking to remedy the problem.

“We expect that the audibility of meetings will be something we’ll address moving forward,” he said. MacLean added that the district will be receiving a quote from DeGange Sound Solutions of Belmont at the next school board meeting on Oct. 3.

“We want to be transparent – we want people to be active at our board meetings,” MacLean said. “We’ve been very transparent, very forthcoming. And it will continue.”

‘A very difficult process’

Both Andrus and Ross-Raymond said Monday that they felt it was necessary to bring the civil suit forward to really address their concerns about the school board’s conduct.

“The only reason I filed a suit with the Superior Court against the Merrimack Valley School Board and SAU is because I feel that elected officials and public employees need to obey NH laws and are accountable to the citizens,” Andrus wrote in an email.

Ross-Raymond said in a phone interview: “We would have never filed a lawsuit if it was just one instance. This was the only recourse to get them to pay attention.”

And though both Andrus and Ross-Raymond received a desirable outcome in the suit, both acknowledged it hasn’t come with hardship. Litigating cost Andrus and Ross-Raymond between $350 and $500 each, and Andrus estimated she spent 75 hours researching and drawing up case filings.

“It’s a very difficult process for the people that want to do this pro se,” Ross-Raymond said, adding that Right To Know NH, an advocacy group, helped them with the case. “You don’t understand the language, you don’t understand the laws.”

Both Andrus and Ross-Raymond said they faced pressure from the community and were ridiculed for pursuing the case. “I have been verbally attacked a couple of times by very specific people,” Ross-Raymond said. He added that people have voiced their displeasure at the suit incurring legal costs for the school district – costs ultimately paid for by tax dollars.

The total legal costs were $13,524.50, MacLean said.

Andrus said that the process was an “eye-opener,” but also left her feeling like taxpayers aren’t afforded the same protections as other groups in New Hampshire.

“(T)he school board and SAU have attorneys that our taxes pay for and protect them, the employees of the school district have the unions who protect them, and who do the citizens have to stand up for them?” she wrote. “The answer is no one. Citizens should not have to beg and go to court to have public elected officials and public employees obey NH laws.”

Ross-Raymond said he felt there could be more support for pro se litigants – those who represent themselves – though hopefully he and Andrus won’t need it in the future.

“I’m hopeful we can work with the school board,” he said, “and that we won’t have to do this again going forward.”