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In Cornish, A Qualified Apology

Cornish school board members Cathy Parks, left, and Holly Taft talk during the meeting held in Cornish, N.H., on May 27, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Cornish school board members Cathy Parks, left, and Holly Taft talk during the meeting held in Cornish, N.H., on May 27, 2014. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Cornish — Embattled School Board member Holly Taft apologized for her coarse Facebook comment during a special meeting Thursday, but maintained that the post was not referring to residents who attended a contentious board meeting the night prior.

Many community members, however, continue to believe that the comment Taft posted on a friend’s Facebook wall on May 20 was directed at residents who disagreed with her stance during a policy debate.

“I do apologize that my foul language made numerous appearances in newspaper articles,” she said, reading from a two-page prepared statement. “I do feel sorry that the public was repeatedly bombarded with a nasty word that was not for public consumption.

“I do apologize if anyone felt offended or felt that the comment I made was aimed at them. I do regret that my irreverent and obnoxious comment, taken completely out of context, set the tone for an egregiously terrible School Board meeting last week and that my personal comment to a friend incensed a population so deeply that they would boo, hiss, stomp their feet, scream obscenities in front of children and begin mini-melees in what should be a place of decorum.”

A few people thanked Taft for her service, with resident Frank Ackerman calling her a “fine School Board member” and a “wonderful addition to the town.”

Others remained unconvinced, continuing their calls for Taft’s resignation.

“How do you apologize and then turn around and blame it on everyone in the room?” former Selectboard member Merilynn Bourne said after the meeting. “The sincerity doesn’t ring true.”

Bourne said she submitted to chairman Troy Simono a petition that had about 70 signatures calling for the board to counsel Taft to resign.

Several others used a citizen’s comment period to question the genuineness of Taft’s apology and her refusal to resign.

“The School Board wants to sweep this under the rug as if it didn’t happen,” said resident Pete Lynch, “and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

The meeting was smooth and orderly — a far cry from last week’s mayhem, when most of the roughly 100 people in attendance were outraged by the board’s decision not to allow public comment and shouting matches pervaded.

Several people made calls for respectful debate and urged everyone to move forward as the elementary school faces declining enrollment and increasing costs.

Taft’s husband, Jesse Taft, told the public it “really has not been a fun couple of weeks for (his) family.” He told the public that his wife had taken the fallout harder than anyone, that she’s not a person who would apologize if she didn’t mean it and that the public shoulders some of the blame for the firestorm.

“I think (the controversy) just needs to die,” he said, eliciting applause from some in the audience of about 60 people.

After the meeting, Taft said that she decided to make the statement because the issue had been “simmering” for too long. She said that she felt like this meeting was a “better and more positive” meeting compared to last week’s.

Taft maintained the comment was not about the public but offered no further explanation. She has previously said she would “have to be an idiot” to answer a question about to whom she was referring.

In the May 20 Facebook comment, Taft said she had “met more f---tards in one place (the night prior) than I have met collectively in my whole life” and that she had been “called out for smirking.”

During the previous night’s meeting, which lasted from 6:30 to 10 p.m., a woman in the audience told the board that the “smirking is very upsetting,” without naming which board member she was referring to.

During Thursday’s meeting, Bourne asked why Taft hadn’t deleted the comment and when she would.

Taft said she would do it later that night.

Taft also spent time during her statement detailing a long history assisting and caring for people with special needs, including her own brother in her youth, her undergraduate studies in communication disorders, working as a personal care attendant for a disabled man and, currently, as a speech therapist at another elementary school.

Resident Linda Fellows told the board that those qualifications and others were “overshadowed” by the coarse word Taft used, a derivative of “retarded,” which has become a derogatory term for special needs people.

After the meeting, Fellows — who was among many shouting in the crowd last week — said she was glad that the meeting was more civilized, but she feels that Taft “had won” and she was disappointed that she would not be resigning.

At the start of the meeting, Simono, the board chairman, acknowledged that he had erred during last week’s meeting when he accepted a vote to adjourn the meeting but, after a private gathering with the board, later continued to accept public comment and hold votes.

Former long-time Town Moderator Peter Burling, a lawyer, has said that when chaos erupted after the adjournment, he encouraged Simono to continue the meeting in order to settle how the school would consolidate its grade levels when it loses a teacher to budget cuts next year, a pressing question for many residents.

Simono said the mistake was the result of inexperience.

On Thursday, the board accepted public comment from several people who had left last week’s meeting, thinking it was over, and then revoted on the grade consolidation issue. Although the handful of people who talked spoke against consolidating grades 2 through 4 with two teachers and piloting a new pre-K/kindergarten combination, those measures still passed, as they had last week.

Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin said the error at last week’s meeting would be reflected in the meeting minutes, which were not available Thursday night.

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

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