NEWPORT — The Newport School Board used its April 24 meeting to receive guidance from the New Hampshire School Board Association about how to handle public comments at the meetings, then moved to change its public comment policy. The board completed a draft of the new policy, which will be finalized after further review.
Newport school board meetings, which have been fractious, reached a tipping point on April 4, when critical comments by one member of the public dominated more than an hour of the meeting. The board voted April 11 to disallow public comment and reached out to NHSBA for help.
Barrett Christina, president of the NHSBA, and William Phillips, NHSBA staff attorney, instructed the board on the legal issues of public comment.
“The primary purpose of school board meetings is to conduct the meeting,” Christina said. The public has a right to attend meetings, but the right to speak is determined by the school board.
“The Right to Know Law does not create a right to speak at a school board meeting,” said Phillips.
The NHSBA recommends that school boards allow public comment only on agenda items.
“This is essentially a political question that school boards must grapple with,” said Phillips. Federal law allows school boards to set parameters on topics, but not on viewpoint. For instance, if the public can praise a school teacher during a meeting the board can't stop the public from also criticizing that teacher.
During the April 4 meeting, citizen Bert Spaulding Sr. spoke for over 37 minutes about the MS26 document, which outlines projected expenditures for the town meeting. Spaulding stated that the MS26 was “fraudulent” and accused the board of “fraudulently” signing it because the items on it weren't submitted to the Department of Revenue Administration (DRA). He added that the document is required to be filed within 20 days of the meeting and said it wasn't. Spaulding said he requested a copy of the first document (with projected expenditures) from Superintendent Cindy Gallagher and she instead shared with him the document the district filed with the DRA.
In his speech Spaulding alleged the district lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, or lied about the same, by failing to file a proper MS26. He threatened to take the district to court.
SAU#43 interim Finance Director George Caccavaro addressed Spaulding's concerns. “The numbers he threw at you are not dollars you actually spent,” he told the board.
“They're dollars you recommended. That's what the MS26 does; the MS22 is the actual allocations. The MS22 explains what actually passed and allocates it by school, by student, by teachers' raises. And that's it,” said Caccavaro.
“When you file a 26 and the state accepts it, it fills in the target numbers on the 22, which are required to match the budget that was passed. And, it did. It zeroes out. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it,” said Caccavaro.
Caccavaro also addressed an earlier accusation by Spaulding, to the effect that an estimated tax increase error caused the district to lose money from the state. He said the DRA doesn't evaluate school aid on estimated taxes. “It doesn't matter what you put there, they don't even look at it.”
The April 4 meeting also featured a five-minute speech by Kurt Minich during which he alleged the district “stole” Towle Elementary School, criticized Gallagher for serving on the Community Center board, called the administration and district “dysfunctional” and used a pejorative term to refer to Gallagher.
On April 24 attorney Phillips advised them, “Boards may expand the scope of allowable public comments. However, the broader the scope the more the board opens itself up for members of the public airing complaints and criticism, including attacks on individual students and employees.”
Phillips told the board they can set reasonable limits regarding the time, place and manner of public comments. For instance, speakers can be restricted in the number of minutes they may speak.
After the NHSBA representatives left, the school board worked to rewrite the district's policy on public comment. Members of the public may henceforth be restricted to a three-minute limit during public comment. Further, discussion will only be allowed on agenda items. Another two minutes, with one minute for rebuttal, may be allowed for members of the public to comment on actions items.
“If it doesn't work, we revisit it,” said Rhonda Callum-King. “If it becomes a place where it tries to draw out the meeting all day and we get nothing done still, then we revisit it.”
“Our objective is not to limit what insights people have,” said Anne Spencer. “Our objective is to limit ridiculous drawn-out meetings where we can't get stuff done.”