SANDOWN – The Timberlane Regional School District school board has voted to amend two of its rules that were challenged by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union (NHCLU), and members of the public, on grounds that they infringed on First Amendment rights.
At the board’s organizational meeting last month, members approved newly penned rules about how members should comport themselves and two of these, Rules Seven and Eight, did not sit well with all members. Peter Bealo and Donna Green were against Rule Eight, which restricted communication with the press to the school board chair. Green, a regular blogger on district affairs, also challenged Rule Seven because it forced board members to support all board decisions despite personal misgivings or disagreement.
Following that earlier meeting, the NHCLU sent a letter to the district stating that the rules infringed upon Free Speech rights and threatened further action if they were not rescinded or changed.
One of the first orders of business at the board’s April 3 meeting was to change the rules in question. The district’s legal counsel and NHCLU had worked together in the preceding days to amend the language of the rules.
Rule Eight now allows board members to speak to the press but encourages members to direct inquiries to the chair.
Rule Seven explains that members are under no obligation to publicly support, or refrain from expressing opposition to, decisions with which they disagree.
Bealo suggested striking both rules entirely because they were so “wishy washy and ambiguous” that at the end of the day, they didn’t say much. He said that in his years on the board, the general goal was to eliminate such ambiguity, but a motion he made to strike the rules was not picked up by the rest of the group.
All members voted in favor of the amended rules except for Bealo, who voted against them.
Board member Rob Collins, who wrote the original rules, was not in attendance during the vote, arriving later in the meeting. Also not present for the vote were Michael Mascola and Rick Blair.
There was also further discussion on Rule Five, which restricts all correspondence from the board’s email address, TRSB@Timberlane.net, to the chair. Green raised an issue with this rule, stating that she would like the opportunity to respond to correspondence from constituents through that address.
The address redirects its contents to all members of the board. Superintendent Earl Metzler cautioned against allowing all members to respond through the address as it could inadvertently lead to a meeting by email, if a quorum of members begin to weigh in on issues. Such meetings are not allowed per the State’s Right to Know laws.
Metzler pointed out that members could use their own email addresses for responding to constituents.
Member Kate Delfino suggested rewriting Rule Five to state that the chair was the “primary” responder for that address but that other members could still respond to constituents if they considered it appropriate.
Because of the issues surrounding Rules Seven and Eight, chair Nancy Steenson wanted to run any language changes by the district’s legal counsel before any vote. Ultimately it was decided to suspend the rule until legal counsel could weigh in.
Once the matter was settled, Steenson took time to read a prepared statement into the record, saying she wanted to speak to the public about the recent issues.
Steenson said it was never her intention to trample free speech rights, but that the goal of the board has been to ensure that consistent and accurate information goes to the press, and having a single spokesperson made that work easier. She added that despite what had been said about her by some members of the public. the rules were not a personal mandate.
“Nevertheless I was accused of having a petty scheme to abrogate power to myself and I have been compared to Stalin,” said Steenson. “I’d like to take this opportunity to remind the public that all of us here volunteer an enormous amount of time to make our schools better for our children while honoring the taxpayers’ budgetary concerns. We are moms, dads and grandparents. We’re taxpayers just like you. But most importantly we’re you’re neighbors.”
Steenson urged people with concerns about what may have taken place at a meeting to watch the meeting, or to contact the membership, all of whose contact information is available on the district’s website at timberlane.net.
“We always welcome your input,” said Steenson.
The Timberlane district covers Sandown, Atkinson, Plaistow and Danville.