Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ORCSD School Board Election

Dear Oyster River Community,

Hi.  I'm Dean Rubine, from Lee, NH.  I'm blogging here to express my opinion on how people should vote in the upcoming school board election, Tuesday, March 13th, 2012.  I'll try to back up my opinions with facts, and to link those facts back to their source so you know I'm not making them up.  I'll allow unmoderated commenting and I welcome opposing and concurring opinions, but I do want to encourage civil discussion so be warned I will delete posts that I think cross the line.  When somebody points out a mistake, I'll correct the post to minimize misinformation.   I'll also leave a comment about the change so nobody thinks I'm doing anything sneaky.  I'll fix typos and make additions without comment.

For those of you who trust me and just want to know my opinion on who to vote for, I'm supporting the T.E.A.M. - Tom, Ed, Al and Maria.  That's Maria BarthEd CharléTom Newkirk, and Al Howland.   They are running in four separate races, and every voter in each town can vote for all of them.   I encourage you to do just that.  I am also planning on voting YES on all the school board related warrant articles, including the large budget allocation of over $38 million.  

A Personal History of the ORCSD School Board

My wife and I have two children that currently attend Mast Way Elementary.  I started paying attention to the Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD) school board last summer, when my wife went looking for information on why Superintendent Colter was paid his full salary and benefits not to work this school year.  What she found instead was Board Member Jim Kach's twitter account.   Making these tweets public caused a big kerfuffle in town, and even some national news as the Associated Press picked up the story.   I'm encouraging people to vote for  Ed Charlé for the Madbury seat currently held by Mr. Kach, who refused to resign and is running for reelection.   Let's get this ugly incident behind us.

The buyout of the superintendent was largely done in illegal secret meetings, according to Strafford County Superior Court's recent decision in David Taylor v Oyster River Cooperative School Board and Henry Brackett, Chairman.   Among other things, the judge found that "(1) Plaintiff [David Taylor] was refused access to public documents from the Board and Brackett after reasonably requesting such access,  (2) this lawsuit was necessary in order to make proceedings open to the public, and (3) the Board and Brackett knew or should have known their conduct violated the Right-to-Know Law."   I find it incredible that after eight months and a successful lawsuit, I still don't know why they board spent $185,000 secretly buying out Superintendent Colter.  I guess they really didn't like him.   It's also interesting that the board had the full authority to do the buyout, yet chose to proceed in secret anyway.  They probably would have gotten some heat from the public had they acted aboveboard, but by doing it in secret they ended up getting even more heat.   I am recommending people vote for Maria Barth, who's running against the lawbreaking Chairman Henry Brackett.

We had inadvertently stepped into a fight between the school board and a significant fraction of the community.  Besides the buyout, there was the High School Principal Laura Rogers, who quit because she found "the political tension around the school system to be unproductive, and not in the best interest of the kids."   Much of this tension appears to have fomented on oysterrivercommunity.blogspot.com.   I'm not sure if that blog is still claiming to be unbiased; editorially they usually slant toward supporting the current board and the Durham Taxpayers Association, in my opinion.  [Mr. Bebbington, the site administrator, says in a comment below that the blog never claimed to be unbiased:  "the views expressed on the blog are those of the authors, and we are happy to accept submissions from anyone, regardless of their views."    Thanks for the correction, Mr. Bebbington.]

Next came Justin Cambell, a widely supported candidate for ORHS principal that was summarily rejected by the board.   This led to the high school students actually walking out of class in protest.   The buyout of the superintendent Colter, who supported candidate Campbell, followed this incident.

This was followed by the tweet controversy.   Next came the policy to say the pledge before every meeting -- the board seemed pretty jazzed about it, which is why I find it surprising that it is now sporadically ignored.  There was some proposed policy about teaching religion, but that hot potato was tabled pretty quickly.

Then came budget season,  where interim Superintendent Levesque repeatedly asked the board for guidance as to the bottom line, and when he failed to get it he presented a bare-bones budget that represented a very modest increase (0.6%, if I recall) over the previous year.   Then the board asked him to find an additional $500K in cuts, which he presented though he did not support them.  The board rather haphazardly approved most of the cuts,  including the cutting of a high school assistant principal.  

Members of the board routinely but disingenuously refer to these cuts as recommended or supported by the administration.  Principal Allen has repeatedly stated that while he did as he was told when asked to suggest additional cuts, he does not support his own suggested cuts.  Anyway, this wasn't enough slashing for the current board.   Members Lane and Turnball got passed an additional list of cuts.

These last minute cuts seemed ill-thought out.  For example, the cutting of the Assistant Principal didn't jibe with the plan to increase the number of tuition students at the high school, and the cutting of the paper budget (because we're going paperless) was at odds with major cuts in the technology budget.  

Next came the superintendent search, secret ballots, and another lawsuit.  I could go on.  I didn't mention the loss of the Director of Instruction (two, now that Ms. Bolduc is leaving) or the loss of the IT administrator. 

It appears that this board goes out of its way to act divisively.    I appreciate that the board needs to make tough decisions, but the law requires them to deliberate largely in public.  When they thought the public would be an impediment, they illegally circumvented the law.  This is not just my opinion; it is the ruling of the Strafford County Superior Court.   I've come to the conclusion that much of the community no longer trusts the current board to act in the district's best interest, and that this loss of trust is beyond repair.   Thus I am recommending that all current board members that appear on the ballot be voted out.   Please vote for the T.E.A.M. - Tom, Ed, Al and Maria - on Tuesday, March 13th.  That's Maria BarthEd Charlé, Tom Newkirk, and Al Howland.

Very truly yours,
Dean Rubine
Lee, NH


  1. Dear Mr. Rubine,

    I’d say I genuinely enjoy reading your many position papers (such as this treatise of yours, above), if I wasn’t more aware of the context from whence they came. I appreciate your heading, a “personal” history of the ORCSD School Board. That’s because I believe your view of recent history of this district is jaded and skewed, and not entirely forthright and accurate. I will comment in a 3 part reply.

    I’m sure we could banter back and forth for hours on point-counter points. As of right now, I will only respond to what you’ve written to express my perspective on your “facts” and chronology of recent history.

    Let’s start with your comment about the resignation of Laura Rogers. Have you ever considered what impetus would have driven the creation of the “oyster river community blog?” Have you ever taken the time to look back at the archives of the blog, as far back as 2008, when the blog was first created? Here’s my first FACT: The blog was the first attempt by residents in this community to galvanize the public, and heighten their awareness to the palpable, and egregious, lack of open and honest communication from the School Board to the public, back in 2008. This included hiring policies, contracts, spending and assorted board policy violations, to list just a few. Think back to who was on the board at that time. There might be a little scar tissue behind the Right-to-Know lawsuits today, and who better than David Taylor to know how to manipulate, and confound the current board with his vindictive assaults, based on his experiences vs. the public.

    Two members on the current board were not elected until March, 2011. A third member only came on board in August of 2010. Laura Rogers’ resignation was tendered in January, 2011. How many times has THIS board been unfairly accused of being the reason for her resignation? Curiously enough, former members, who WERE on the board during the time in question, have been the ones making the most noise about who is to blame for her leaving. FACT #2: The current board is not to blame for Laura Rogers’ resignation.

  2. Part 2

    Here’s my favorite part. Prior to the March elections of 2011, a search committee (with a makeup that did not conform to board policy, heavily slanted toward faculty) came up with Justin Campbell as the next high school principal. Howard Colter tried to ramrod him through the newly elected School Board with a, “take it or leave it” attitude, and no other choice. There was pressure applied from several avenues, including idle threats, like, “If you derail this choice we will come over and burn your house down!” The School Board voted him down, which was their right, being a duly elected board of the people. Yet it came across as a big insult to the search committee. What would you do in that position as an elected official of the district, Mr. Rubine? Do you think the School Board is a mere “formality?” The School Board represents me as a taxpayer. I don’t consider myself to be a mere formality with regard to the school district. FACT #3: Howard Colter had no right to try to put the board in that position, and they had a perfect right to vote Justin Campbell down under those circumstances.

    Now things really started to cascade. I don’t know all the details about the Howard Colter buyout. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise what occurred based on how things played out. I witnessed the insolent and obstinate behavior of Colter during the April and May School Board meetings (this is the period before you had any knowledge of what was happening in the district. That is your claim, not mine). In my business, he would be described as insubordinate, especially with his handling of the now-famous student walkout. Seems to me, Colter wasn’t happy with the makeup of the new board, and he didn’t want to play ball with them. But that’s tough cookies! The board represents the people, who take precedence over his desires. He needed to be a professional about it. It doesn’t surprise me there was a separation.

    Where I work, if you get a new boss, and you resist his marching orders, you are ushered to the corner office. You have a choice: you toe the line, or you clear your desk and hit the road. That’s the business world I know. Colter apparently didn’t know what side of the desk he was on. The buyout was expensive for the district. That is unfortunate, but I recognize there is only one thing worse than paying someone not to work; that’s paying someone who’s working against you! The board bought out Colter’s contract, presumably to keep things as cordial as possible. I agree we shouldn’t have given Colter a buyout. In my opinion, he should have been fired!

  3. Part 3

    You’re correct. The board should have kept everything out in the open. You have to admit, though, the “public” (translation: FORE and the partisans who systematically started a campaign of intimidation and harassment) didn’t make it very easy for the board. These are human beings, and they were treated incorrigibly. With all due respect, this board did not violate law because they are devious. They followed the advice of council, and even the lawyers didn’t understand how to navigate around Right-to-Know law. Indignant and coercive actions by spiteful opponents are as much to blame for driving them outside of the spirit of the law as their own designs. Refusing to acknowledge any responsibility for contributing to this travesty is to be guilty of a lack of accountability and objectivity.

    We’ve all been around and around about the tweet issue. Personally, I think that once the tweets were “stumbled upon,” they became a convenient political ploy for those who wanted to raise some Cain and keep this board on the defensive. Let’s please not encroach on a person’s right to free speech. That is protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

    We will never agree about the budget. If anyone thinks the taxpayers of this district have been anything less than generous with their money, to support education for the last 10 years, then they are divorced from their senses. The cost of educating our children is outrageously high. Unless someone can show me that OR high school diplomas, that graduates of Oyster River receive today, are any better than anywhere else (even Montgomery County, Maryland), than I want to pay what they pay, not 25% more! It is a normal expectation for people to want good value for their money, even when it comes to public education. I am not willing to sacrifice my kids’ college funds to support the bloated budget at Oyster River.

    I suspect this will not change any of your staunch positions about who to vote for, but at least you know there is a different perspective of the history of the ORCSD School Board.

    Very Truly Yours,
    Calvin Jarvis

  4. Mr. Jarvis, thank you so much for taking the time and effort to post such an extensive comment. I hope by the time you and I are done here anyone reading this would come away with a truly balanced understanding of the issues in the district. I invite others who differ from both myself and Mr. Jarvis to add their perspective.

    I've only been paying attention to the school board since the tweets, around July, 2011. My information from before that time comes from reading and talking to people, not from being there.

    I'll address part 3 first, as I can see it on my screen as I write. I see why you broke your comment into sections I just hit the 4096 character limit.

    I don't agree that we're disagreeing about the budget. I'd love to cut costs 25%, but I don't want to trash our property values in the process. People move to the district for the schools, they move out or stay away because of the taxes. We need both good schools and lower taxes to keep our property values up.

    The parents in the district pay taxes like everyone else and they don't want to be overcharged either. But they're the first ones to complain if cutting is done recklessly, because it's their kids' education at stake. They're doing everyone a favor because the district's reputation directly affects people's property values.

    What's needed is a board with a plan to get the cost per pupil down to a more reasonable level. But we can't restore the district's reputation if a large amount of the community distrusts the board. There will just be more rancor, and everybody loses.

    From my perspective, this began with not being able to get an answer about the Colter buyout. As I came to learn, and the judge found, this was the result of the board having illegal meetings where they would deliberate in secret, presumably so the buyout was a fait accompli before the public could object. When elected officials act illegally to keep information from me, I start to think they might not have my best interests at heart. I'm not alone.

    Then there was the tweets. I'm not the most civic-minded guy out there -- I have a demanding job, a family, some hobbies -- really plenty to keep me occupied. I've ignored my local news pretty consistently since 1972. But the idea that someone one the school board of my kid's school had said "It starts now. At the lowest level-school board, selectmen, alderman, State reps and senators. Cut the legs from the beast" got my attention. Mr. Kach's bigotry, birtherism and general lack of respect for anyone who disagrees with him added up to one thing in my mind: this man does not represent me and I don't want him representing my schools.

    So this is my cause. I'm not part of FORE. I'm not using the tweets for some other end. What happened with boards past is someone else's problem -- this board is the one I have an issue with.

  5. [Here's the rest of my comment on your "part 3"]

    The First Amendment argument is a real red herring. I love the first amendment. I love how it protects me each time I type "Jim Kach made noxious, reprehensible tweets and engaged in illegal meetings and other violations of the law." I am thrilled that Mr. Kach has his first amendment rights -- how else would I have found out what he really thinks? He handily typed up his thoughts and sent them out into the ether for all to see.

    Now we're blaming the lawyer. Isn't that the lament of convicted criminals everywhere? The law's called "Right to Know" -- what did they think it was about? Wasn't the board trained in RTK? Who is this mysterious bad lawyer? Is it our regular school board education lawyer? Have we fired him? Sued him?

    Now you want to say it was OK to break the law because the public didn't make it easy for the board. The whole point of the RTK law is to let public observe elected officials conduct their business -- there's no exception that lets the board off the hook if it wouldn't be easy. If the board wants the public to go easy on them, the board needs to listen to the public, earn their trust, and bring them along by showing decisions are reached rationally through public deliberation. This board has irreparably lost my trust. In my opinion, the fewer incumbents on the new board, the more likely the community will see this as a fresh start and given them the benefit of the doubt. Thus I'm voting for Ed Charle and Maria Barth on March 13th.

  6. [I'm going to reply to Mr. Jarvis's part 1 & 2 here.]

    Mr. Jarvis, as you point out the Laura Roger's resignation happened before I starting paying attention, so my information is second hand. I based my comment on a quote from her letter of resignation published in Fosters (http://www.fosters.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110625/GJNEWS_01/706259961): "There are past and present board members who regularly post to an Internet blog that supports anonymous, vitriolic comments that often malign not only central office administrators and building principals ... This blog has caused some of my faculty and staff members a lot of pain and anxiety and I can find no value in it."

    You correctly state the resignation was dated January, 2011. This was indeed in the previous board's term, but the two incumbents running for reelection this cycle were on the board at the time, so the comment fairly applies to them. As for other board members who served at the time, when they run again I'll examine their records.

    Similarly, the Justin Campbell debacle and student walkout was before my time. I don't know anything about that search committee, but I assume they were selected based on a duly passed motion of the board. I'm certainly not denying that the board has the authority to reject the candidate. What I am saying the board's handling of the hire, which divided the community and precipitated a student walkout, left much to be desired.

    Similarly, the Colter buyout was before my time. We still don't know why he was bought out -- perhaps you are correct in stating there was cause. In my experience, when people are fired for cause they don't usually get a full year of severance, including benefits. In business whoever proposes a deal is at a disadvantage in negotiations (i.e. the initiators have admitted to wanting the deal, the other side can take it or leave it). Given the very beneficial outcome for Mr. Colter, it appears the board was indeed in a very poor negotiating position.

    The board has full authority to hire and fire the superintendent -- it's one of their primary responsibilities. However, instead of obeying the law when terminating Mr. Colter (and the law allows for non-public meetings to discuss personnel issues), the board chose to act illegally and attempted to circumvent the Right-to-Know law. They got caught (twice now) and the court had to issue an injunction to compel them to obey the law in the future. If they violate it again, they could end up in jail for contempt.

    In my opinion, through their repeated illegal activity, and because of Mr. Kach's reprehensible tweets (which were never condemned by Chairman Brackett), Messrs. Kach and Brackett have worn out their welcome on the ORCSD School Board. I again urge everyone to vote for Dr. Ed Charle and Maria Barth on Tuesday March 13th.

    - Dean

  7. Hi Dean:

    I realize I'm coming a bit late to this party, but I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to correct one bit of misinformation about the Oyster River Community Blog (full disclosure: I am an administrator of and frequent contributor to that blog).

    You had said above that "I'm not sure if that blog is still claiming to be unbiased; editorially they usually slant toward supporting the current board and the Durham Taxpayers Association, in my opinion."

    I just want to state for the record that we have never claimed to be unbiased; the views expressed on the blog are those of the authors, and we are happy to accept submissions from anyone, regardless of their views.

    Nor are we associated with the Durham Taxpayers Association (though in accordance with the policy above, we have on occasion published pieces by Roger Speidel).

    If readers will indulge, a bit of history might help clarify: back in 2008, when a group of us discovered irregularities in the District's bidding and purchasing, as well as apparent failure on the part of the Board to follow policy (as an aside, this sort of thing is not a recent phenomenon; it goes back long before the Taylor lawsuits—indeed, back to the time when Taylor himself was on the Board), there was no place to turn other than to the Board itself. It may be hard to imagine now, but Fosters and the Union Leader did not cover the Board, and there was very little opportunity for the general public to find out what the Board was up to, other than attending meetings (or watching them on local access cable).

    The Oyster River Community blog was our attempt to rectify that situation. As is obvious from the content, we are not professional journalists, nor do we have the resources of a news organization. But given the sheer lack of information, we felt we had to do something, and the blog was our best attempt at it.

    We’ve had our ups and down since then, but one thing I can point to with some pride is that far more community members are aware of (and participate in) the affairs of the ORCSD than ever before. We’ve even had the unintended (but welcome) effect of getting the local newspapers to cover the Board, at least some of the time.

    Whether or not that’s a good thing, of course, depends on your viewpoint. I, for one, am happy to see the increasing attention paid to the District, and the increased citizen involvement that has resulted. I’m even happy to see that a handful of blogs dedicated to District affairs, like this one, have sprung up. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!)

    I’d wish you the best of luck with this blog, and if you (or anyone else) would care to post on our blog, please drop us a line at oysterrivercommunity@gmail.com.


    Tom Bebbington

  8. Thank you for your comment Mr. Bebbington. I appreciate the clarification.