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Jim Kenyon: Hartford Taxpayers Have a Right to Know

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, April 04, 2018

I certainly get why the parents who alleged that their 5-year-old son was sexually abused and harassed by another pupil at the Ottauquechee School aren’t anxious to reveal the terms of the recent out-of-court settlement in their federal lawsuit against the Hartford School District.

Private plaintiffs and defendants sometimes want to keep the details about how much — or in some cases, how little — they received or paid confidential. That’s their business, and they may have many reasons for it.

But government bodies don’t have the same luxury. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent.

Apparently, however, Hartford School District Superintendent Tom DeBalsi isn’t a big fan of government accountability. Last week, DeBalsi denied a public records request by Valley News staff writer Jordan Cuddemi to disclose the settlement terms.

DeBalsi cited a bunch of reasons, mostly dealing with “student records” and “negotiation of contracts” that he claimed made the settlement terms off limits to the public.

Lia Ernst, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, took exception to DeBalsi’s flouting of the state’s Public Records Law. “We see here an agency stretching an exemption well beyond its intent, another unfortunate example of many Vermont agencies’ reflexive denial of public records requests,” Ernst wrote Cuddemi in an email.

Why are Hartford school officials fighting tooth and nail to keep the public in the dark?

Could it be plain arrogance?

DeBalsi, who was hired in 2011, and his lieutenants seem to regard the school district as their private preserve, where the less that Hartford taxpayers know about what they do, the better.

Or are they also running scared? In their 2016 lawsuit, the boy’s parents claimed that the alleged abuse during the 2012-13 school year didn’t stop even with their repeated attempts to get DeBalsi and the district’s staff to deal with it. School officials denied the parents’ allegations in court documents.

Even with a settlement having been reached, important questions remain.

What assurances can school officials give that this was an isolated case? Were or are other children at risk? Why are school officials so sure that the parents’ allegations were unfounded? If so, why did they settle? These are all things I’d like to know and would have a right to know if I were the parent of a child in Hartford schools.

I’ve heard the argument that the public doesn’t have a right to know about the settlement terms because it’s not really taxpayers’ money. Liberty Mutual, the district’s insurance carrier at the time, is presumably writing the check.

But who paid the premiums on the policy? Taxpayers. Without them footing the bill, there would have been no insurance.

It also would be nice to know whether Liberty Mutual is covering the entire settlement, or if the school district (i.e. Hartford taxpayers) is self-insured for a certain amount. Does the district have to pay a deductible? Is the settlement going to affect the cost of future premiums?

All questions I posed in an email to DeBalsi. “On the advice of counsel, I have no comment,” he wrote back.

Which brings me to one of the school district’s attorneys, Bernie Lambek, of Montpelier. Lambek didn’t represent Hartford in the lawsuit, but has been working with school officials on keeping the settlement under wraps. (Liberty Mutual hired Woodstock attorney Richard Windish to represent the school district in the suit. Windish told me that Liberty Mutual covered his legal bills.)

When I called Lambek on Monday, he wouldn’t talk specifics about how keeping the settlement a secret serves the public good. “There are competing interests involved here,” he said.

I mentioned to Lambek, who often represents the school district on employment matters, that he seemed an unlikely choice to work on this case. He’s on the board of directors for the ACLU of Vermont, which the last time I checked was all about shining a light on government activities.

“I believe in transparent government,” Lambek assured me.

He certainly has a funny way of showing it.

Not only is Lambek aiding Hartford school officials in their attempt to circumvent the state’s Public Records Law, he won’t disclose how much he’s being paid to do so. DeBalsi also refused to give me Lambek’s hourly rate.

It’s possible that the district’s response is being orchestrated by the insurance company and the lawyers, whose interests are not identical with those of the public.

At times like these, taxpayers should be able to turn to their elected officials to look out for their best interests. Unfortunately, there’s little reason to believe the Hartford School Board is up to the task.

According to board meeting minutes, it hasn’t voted on the settlement. Chairman Kevin Christie told me the board has met with its attorney “for an update,” and “when and if there is something to share, we will.”

The public’s last best hope rests with U.S. District Judge Christina Reiss. When the settlement was reached — six days before the case was scheduled to go to trial — the two sides filed a motion to have it sealed.

Reiss must hear arguments before ruling on the  proposed sealing of documents. For the sake of open government, I can only hope that she doesn’t go along with the charade.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.