Croydon — Records obtained through a right-to-know request by the Valley News point to a working relationship over the past year between Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and a member of the Croydon School Board, which most recently included helping her husband apply for a job at the state Department of Education.
During that time, the School Board and Edelblut, who was a Republican state representative last year, were on the same side of a school choice battle waged simultaneously in the courts and in the Legislature.
The connection continued after Edelblut’s appointment as education commissioner in January. A string of emails from earlier this month indicates that he forwarded a government job listing to Jody Underwood, a former chairwoman of the Croydon School Board who still sits on the panel, and then passed an application from her husband, Ian Underwood, to a Department of Education human resources administrator.
The position, listed as “Education Consultant III,” pays between $56,000 and $76,000 a year. The job posting says the consultant will “plan, develop and coordinate educational programs for K-12 educators and other stakeholders in the state in the areas of academic standards, instruction and assessment.”
The position appears to have been listed internally at the time that Ian Underwood applied, on March 11, and was forwarded to Jody Underwood three days earlier by Edelblut through his Department of Education email account. Underwood used her Croydon School Board account in the correspondence.
Jody Underwood this week said she initially had found the job listing while browsing the Department of Education website. At the time it appeared to be open to external candidates, she said, but later she could not find it on the website.
“I believe the open positions have been posted, but that might be for internal applicants (they get first crack) only,” Edelblut said in a March 11 email where he promised to forward Ian Underwood’s application to the human resources department. “I think after a period of a week or two then the posting is opened to outside applicants.”
Edelblut declined to comment on the application during a telephone interview on Friday, saying it was department policy not to discuss personnel matters.
He noted, however, that the department puts to the side any external applications it may receive while internal applicants are still being considered.
A copy of Ian Underwood’s application provided to the Valley News by his wife says he holds a master’s degree in learning sciences from Northwestern University.
He also worked for seven years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and for at least 15 years at The Math Forum, a math education website, where he managed several hundred volunteer teachers and helped users of the site with math questions.
The Underwoods moved to a farm in Croydon in 2007 as part of the Free State Project, and Ian Underwood ran unsuccessfully for state representative last fall. Jody Underwood, who holds a doctorate and designs educational software, has served on the board of the Free State Project, which encourages libertarians to move to New Hampshire to promote civil liberties and free-market policies.
Asked about his relationship with the Underwoods and the Croydon School Board, Edelblut said, “I know Jody and Ian. Ian is a friend of mine, and I’ve got a number of friends.”
“But there is no quid pro quo activity, if that’s what your question is,” he added.
Edelblut last year sponsored a bill that would have legalized the Croydon School Board’s practice of sending children to private school using tax money, and also donated $1,000 to the board’s legal defense against a lawsuit brought by the state Department of Education — which he now leads.
In January, the Underwoods testified on Edelblut’s behalf during his confirmation hearings to fill the remainder of departing Education Commissioner Virginia Barry’s term.
The Croydon School Board has declined to release the names of all of the donors to its legal fund — including Edelblut’s — but he confirmed his $1,000 gift in response to a question from Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord. The Executive Council confirmed Edelblut for a full four-year term as commissioner on Wednesday.
Emails obtained this week by the Valley News through records requests for contacts between Edelblut and members of the Croydon School Board indicate that he and Jody Underwood corresponded frequently in the past year or so, including when Edelblut was running for governor. He narrowly lost the GOP primary to Gov. Chris Sununu in September.
Jody Underwood in late 2016 emailed back and forth with Edelblut, discussing amendments to the proposed legislation, which eventually passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.
Sununu, who was elected in November and also supported the Croydon bill last year, said he looks forward to signing the latest iteration, which already has passed both chambers but requires reconciliation before reaching his desk.
Last March, Underwood invited Edelblut to a public forum in Croydon to discuss a judge’s decision to block the School Board from sending students to the private Newport Montessori School using public money.
Three of those children are related to the sitting chairwoman, Angi Beaulieu.
Early last month, when Edelblut had been nominated but not yet confirmed as commissioner, Underwood emailed him to ask whether she should respond to a Valley News request for comment for a story about him and Betsy DeVos.
At the time, the nomination of Edelblut, a business executive who had home-schooled his children, spurred comparisons to that of DeVos, a conservative megadonor chosen as secretary of education by President Donald Trump.
The correspondence continued after Edelblut was confirmed, with Underwood reaching out to schedule meetings, suggest regulatory changes and, in one instance, submit a proposal for an “accountability” policy that questions the value of tenure for teachers.
“In all of this, there need to be consequences for failure,” the six-page treatise written by Jody Underwood reads. “If there are not, then there is no accountability. As far as I can tell, tenure has no accountability.
“Perhaps after teachers have proven themselves consistently effective over a course of years they can have some level of job security (which they would, just by being effective). But to gain tenure after three years of teaching with no further requirements just seems too easy. Why does tenure exist in the first place? Is it a solution to a problem that no longer exists? Or does it still solve an existing problem? If so, are there other solutions that would give what we want (job security for good teachers) without also giving what we don’t want (job security for poor teachers)?”
As of Friday afternoon, Underwood said her husband had not yet heard back about the job.
Rob Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3242.