Cornish to Hear Revised Policies
Cornish — A group of about 35 townspeople who gathered Thursday night informally agreed that former town moderator Peter Burling should present the School Board with a revised policy on public participation at board meetings that he had written as an alternative to one being considered by the board.
Several people expressed concerns that the version the board is considering, which was recommended by Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin based on language provided by the New Hampshire School Boards Association, is too restrictive.
“I think what the issue is now is that the public is being muzzled,” said resident Peter Lynch, who sits on a committee examining the district’s ties with School Administrative Unit 6.
“Our voice should be heard,” Lynch said. “I think you’re seeing a deliberate attempt ... where they’re trying to shut people up.”
Resident Susan Chandler, a former School Board member, said it seemed that the board had come to view the public “as the enemy.”
“What is happening to our community is horrid,” she said.
Relations between the School Board and the public hit a boiling point in May, when residents at a board meeting, many of them calling for a member’s resignation because of her coarse Facebook comment, were barred from speaking, sparking a chaotic scene that included yelling, cursing, pointing and stomping.
Not everyone in attendance at Thursday’s meeting thought that Burling’s proposal was a good idea, with a long-time town resident and two of the School Board chairman’s relatives suggesting that more cordial behavior on behalf of the public would solve the recent issues.
“I really think there needs to be more respect for the people we voted in. ... They don’t want to be interrupted all the time,” said Ruthie Rollins, who has lived in town for six decades and is the supervisor of the checklist. “The board cannot make decisions” when people speak out of turn.
Alicia Simino, a former School Board member who is married to current chairman Troy Simino, said that “nobody seemed to mind” what the public participation policy was “back when things were going their way, per se.”
“I’m wondering if someone can explain to me the hypocrisy I continue to hear,” Simino said, describing herself as upset, concerned and offended.
The two candidates who were elected to the board in March, Cathy Parks and Holly Taft, ran on promises of making difficult decisions and exercising fiscal conservatism, defeating two candidates who had expressed reservations about cutting teaching positions.
Taft sparked outrage in May when she made a coarse comment on Facebook, widely interpreted to be directed at residents at a School Board meeting, which she has denied.
The School Board has been considering the revisions to the public participation policy since the spring, reading it into the record on April 28 and again on May 19. The last step is to decide whether to adopt the policy; during Thursday’s meeting, Burling said the board is scheduled to make that decision Aug. 4.
The differences between the board’s current policy and the draft that members are considering includes deleting a line that says citizens should attend board meetings “so that the board may have opportunity to hear the wishes and ideas of the public,” and deleting another line that says “speakers may offer comments on such school operations and programs as concern them.”
The new draft also adds language requiring speakers to act in a civil manner, and barring “obscene, libelous, defamatory, or violent statements,” among other tweaks.
McGoodwin, the superintendent, said in an email Wednesday afternoon that he had made a recommendation to revise “this and other policies” in April 2013.
McGoodwin provided a slide show presentation from that time that showed many of the recommendations were based on policies from the New Hampshire School Board Association.
A message left with the executive director of the association Thursday afternoon was not returned.
The Claremont School Board, which, like Cornish, is part of SAU 6, is at the same point in the process of passing an identical revised public comment policy.
In nearby Plainfield, School Board Chairman Chris Forman said he doesn’t know whether Plainfield has a public participation policy because it has never come up in his nine years on the board.
“If we did have a policy you would blow me over with a feather” if it was similar to the state school board association’s suggestion, Forman said, “because that’s just not the way we roll.”
Forman said a “fundamental” part of good local government is “collaboration and communication” with the public.
“I think the approach that Peter Burling is talking about ... hit the right balance,” Forman said. “The school board’s got a job to do but one of its jobs is to make sure that it listens and takes feedback from everybody.”
Residents at Thursday’s meeting at the old town hall, which was open to the public but not hosted by an official town body, suggested minor revisions and tweaks to Burling’s draft. Many acknowledged that although the board does not have to act upon their wishes, they feel that board members should at least hear them out.
Resident Chad Simino, Troy Simino’s brother, said he was “overly impressed” by the cordial participation at Thursday’s meeting and said that “this is the way it should always be.”
Several residents, including Chandler, acknowledged that they were overrun with emotion during the late May meeting, and Chandler apologized for shouting the same coarse word that Taft had used in her Facebook post.
Others complained that nobody from the School Board had attended Thursday’s meeting. In emails, chairman Troy Simino said he had a prior engagement, and McGoodwin and board member Sharon St. Martin said they were out of town.
Troy Simino declined further comment, saying he has “no ability to speak for the board outside of (an official School Board) meeting.” St. Martin deferred comment to Simino.
In an email, board member Glenn Thornton declined comment. An email sent to Parks on Wednesday afternoon was not returned.
Taft responded to a request for comment in one line: “I was enjoying a bonfire and s’mores with my children during said meeting,” she said.
The Cornish School Board’s current public participation policy, the draft it is considering and Burling’s draft as it was written on Monday are all available on the Upper Valley Dispatch blog at www.vnews.com/dispatch.
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.