Concord — A spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu stood by Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut on Thursday despite Democrats’ calls for his resignation after revelations that he donated $1,000 to help the Croydon School Board fight a lawsuit brought by the department he now leads.
The governor’s spokesman, Dave Abrams, said Edelblut had made himself available for roughly seven hours of questions in January as part of the education commissioner confirmation process.
Although no one asked whether the venture capitalist and former state representative had donated money to Croydon’s school choice case, Abrams said, Edelblut had been “open and honest” during hearings.
“He’s made himself available for any questions,” Abrams said.
Since late February, Edelblut has refused to answer questions from the Valley News about his role in the legal fund. He disclosed the donation on Wednesday, after Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky requested that he do so.
Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, called for Edelblut’s resignation in a statement on Thursday, saying the donation was “a clear conflict of interest” and “wildly inappropriate.”
“His failure to disclose pertinent information about his relationship with the subject of an active lawsuit in his department is unacceptable,” Buckley said.
The Croydon School Board has been defending itself in a lawsuit brought by the state Department of Education seeking to block the board’s practice of sending children to private schools using taxpayer money.
Board members last month declined to release the names of donors to an $23,000 online crowdfunding campaign that they launched in 2015 to fund their legal battle.
After attending Croydon’s K-4 school, students there are tuitioned out to other towns. A handful of children, three of whom are related to a sitting board member, have been attending the private Newport Montessori School.
The lawsuit has been stayed pending legislation known as the “Croydon bill” that would allow towns to send children to private school for grades not offered in their own public school systems.
An earlier version of the bill was sponsored by Edelblut and vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. Sununu has said he looks forward to signing the legislation.
Republicans were less eager to denounce the new commissioner, a businessman with no experience in public education who faced stiff opposition from Democrats as a nominee and was confirmed over the objections of the New Hampshire State Board of Education.
Joe Kenney, a Republican executive councilor whose district includes Croydon, said he wasn’t concerned by the contribution, which happened while Edelblut was still a state representative, or by the commissioner’s decision not to disclose it during the confirmation process.
“Any private citizen is entitled to use their money for whatever causes they deemed fit as long as it’s legal,” Kenney said. “The only thing I might suggest is that commissioner of education might reserve comment and judgment on the specific Croydon case and further recuse himself from whatever activity involves that case that might come before the Department of Education, since he has expressed his views on it through his contribution. Having said that, the New Hampshire Legislature and state of Board of Education will produce education policy and it’s the responsibility of the Department of Education, (the) commissioner and (his) staff to administer it.”
Kenney noted, however, that he did believe Croydon should disclose the anonymous donors, who make up about three-quarters of the legal fund’s contributions.
“I would agree that any money going to a public entity should be disclosed,” he said.
Edelblut could not be reached for comment, but he told New Hampshire Public Radio on Thursday that he does not believe his donation hinders his ability to do his job.
State Sen. Ruth Ward, a Republican from Stoddard, N.H., whose district includes Croydon, also defended Edelblut.
“He did this before he was being considered for commissioner,” she said in an interview outside the Senate chamber. “I’ve probably done things earlier in some circumstances that I didn’t know could matter later.”
Ward said she needed more information before she could comment on whether Edelblut should have disclosed the donation after being nominated.
The Executive Council, which confirmed Edelblut on a 3-2 vote along party lines, still has to vote on whether he will serve a full four-year term. The council’s next meeting is Wednesday.
Rob Wolfe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.