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Croydon Won't Release Names of Donors to Legal Fund in School Choice Case

  • Frank Edelblut listens during a public hearing on his nomination to lead the state's education department, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Croydon — As a school choice bill nears the New Hampshire governor’s desk, the Croydon School Board is refusing to identify the major funders of its legal defense against state officials — a clash that helped to inspire the legislation.

The “Croydon bill,” as it has become known among legislators, would allow educational districts to spend taxpayer money to send students to private schools for grades not provided by their own schools.

Croydon, whose public school ends after grade four, has been sending a handful of students to the private Newport Montessori School using tax money. Two of those students are the board chairwoman’s children, and a third is her nephew.

The school choice debate over public-private tuition attracted statewide attention in past years as the Croydon School Board defended itself in court against state Department of Education officials who maintain that it violates state law and sued to block the practice.

In autumn 2015, the Croydon School Board launched a campaign to finance its legal defense through the online crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Thousands of dollars poured in over the following months, according to a list of donations on the page, and the still-running total stands at around $23,000.

Most of the largest gifts are anonymous, including two donations listed at $14,020 and $3,300 about a year and a half ago.

Jody Underwood, a board member who serves as the panel’s school-choice liaison, said the $14,000 contribution was actually three separate checks that the board received physically, not online, and then added to the campaign.

Underwood last month rejected a Valley News records request under N.H. RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law, for documents such as those checks that would reveal the identities of the major donors.

Underwood cited an exemption to the statute that says public entities do not have to disclose “records pertaining to … confidential, commercial, or financial information,” as well as “other files whose disclosure would constitute invasion of privacy.”

“These are private citizens who requested to remain anonymous,” she said in an email.

Andru Volinsky, a Democratic executive councilor who was the lead attorney in the Claremont educational funding lawsuits of the mid-1990s, said the exemptions Underwood cited did not appear to apply to this case.

“Neither one flies,” he said.

The exemption for “confidential, commercial, or financial information,” he said, “is for something that you might think of as a trade secret. I’m on the Executive Council; if a company submitted a bid and had to submit all of their backup financial data to establish their financial viability until they’re approved, this is the kind of protected financial information that this applies to — not the fact that somebody contributed a certain amount of money.”

Volinsky said the second exemption cited, for invasion of privacy, was a “balancing test” between “what kind of ridicule or invasiveness” a disclosure could create for a person and the pertinence of a disclosure to the activities of a public body.

“This is directly about how the Croydon School District funds itself,” he said. “You can’t get a better description of learning about how Croydon funds itself as a public enterprise.”

Croydon last year appealed its case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court after a Superior Court judge ruled in state officials’ favor. A Supreme Court justice in January granted a stay of the case as the “Croydon bill,” which could make court proceedings moot, awaits final action.

The legislation has made its way through the state House and Senate, which passed slightly different versions that they will have to reconcile before sending to the governor. The House’s bill requires that tax money go only to nonreligious private schools; the Senate’s does not.

State Rep. Rick Ladd, a Haverhill Republican who was one of the House bill’s prime sponsors, said his chamber was due to consider the Senate-passed legislation soon. Given that the House approved its own version later, the Senate may take longer to move, he said.

Ladd distanced his legislation from the Croydon School Board — “I haven’t spoken with Croydon at all, period,” he said — but said he would be interested to know who the lawsuit funders were.

“I think it’s always important to find out who’s funding something,” he said. “That’s a public institution and that’s monies they’re receiving as a public institution, so yeah, I suppose it could be considered public information.”

Former governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, vetoed an earlier iteration of the legislation last year. Current Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who voiced support for Croydon during the 2016 election cycle, said he looks forward to signing this year’s version.

Sununu’s office said the governor had not contributed to Croydon’s legal defense fund.

New Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, who as a state representative sponsored an earlier version of the bill, refused to answer numerous inquiries by email and phone over the past two weeks about whether he was one of Croydon’s anonymous benefactors.

A visit on Monday morning to the state Department of Education office in Concord did not yield a response, either.

An aide there said Edelblut was busy throughout the day, but promised to convey a request for comment to him.

A short while later, a man who identified himself as “Skip,” and said he handled security for the commissioner, told a reporter to leave the public waiting room and the building — “or,” he said, “I’ll have to call security to remove you.”

Edelblut appeared at a New Hampshire commissioners forum later that day at Concord’s downtown Holiday Inn. He declined to respond to questions in person outside the event.

Volinsky, who sharply questioned Edelblut about his experience and educational beliefs during Executive Council confirmation hearings, urged the new commissioner to address the question.

Edelblut, a consultant and venture capitalist who homeschooled his seven children, has never worked professionally in public education and faced opposition to his appointment from Democrats on the Executive Council and from the state Board of Education.

He was nominated education commissioner after posting strong results as runner-up in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.

“I would hope that all of our commissioners — particularly during right-to-know week — would be sensitive to the need for governmental transparency,” Volinsky said, referring to an annual event also known as Sunshine Week that celebrates open government.

“The commissioners and I and all the appointed and elected officials work for the people of the state, and the people of the state deserve to know what we’re doing.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.