Hampstead School Board News


Hampstead School Board Wins Court Case Decision to Receive SAU 55 Report
By Penny Williams    4- 10-20

Superior Court Judge Marguerite Wageling's decision in the legal action brought by the Hampstead School Board under RSA 91-A, the  Right-to-Know Law, for access to an investigative report concerning allegations of members of the SAU 55 Board creating a hostile work environment will make that report available within the next 10 days of the April 8, decision date. The law suit was filed in Rockingham Superior Court in February by the Hampstead School Board.

The court case stems from the Hampstead School Board members on the SAU 55 Board being denied access to a report the SAU Board  Chair, Kim Farah, on her own authority and without discussion with or support from the SAU 55 Board members, authorized to investigate a claim of a  Hostile Work Environment created by SAU board members that was given as a reason for a SAU 55 employee resignation.

The suit states that previous to the alleged SAU 55 Board creation of a hostile work environment by the resigning employee, Facilities Director Tom Geary, the Hampstead School Board had adopted a resolution in November of 2018, "rejecting and disapproving of abusive, harassing, and unprofessional conduct by certain SAU 55 Board members directed at, in part, SAU 55 administrators, including Dr. Metzler (Superintendent of SAU 55 - the Hampstead and Timberlane Regional School Districts) and the former employee."  

Upon receipt of the former employee's letter of resignation, Kim Farah, Chair of the SAU 55 Board, commissioned an investigation into the allegations and claims raised by the former employee.

On January 22, Vice Chair of the Hampstead School Board Karen Yasenka wrote to Attorney Debra Weiss Ford, Jackson Lewis PC, representing SAU 55, who was in possession of the investigative report prepared by Attorney Naomi Butterfield, Mitchell Municipal Group. Yasenka  requested access to the report under RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law, asking why the report hadn't been released to the SAU 55 Board members.  Farah not Attorney Ford responded at the time saying she had spoken about the report in non-public and made stated that the investigation found the allegations of a creation of a hostile workplace environment were without merit.
 
    Within Judge Wageling's April 8th decision, it states that Farah did say, "An independent, experienced employment attorney... conducted an extensive investigation of a hostile work environment allegation. At the conclusion of that investigation the independent investigator found that the allegations had no merit."

On Jan. 28, the Hampstead School Board decided to start taking specific action to get access to obtain the report authorized by Farah. The denial of the report to board members potentially raises serious issues since SAU 55 has paid more than $28,600 for the investigation and report and no one knows where the report is or what it says.

  The Hampstead School Board authorized their attorney, Attorney Dean Eggert, Wadleigh, Starr & Peters, P.L.L.C., to contact Attorney Ford and request access to the report. That request was denied and a subsequent request by Eggert made under the Right-to-Know Law also was denied.    
      
     In the Right to Know denial Attorney Ford stated, "The report remains a confidential record. It pertains to internal personnel practices and is otherwise subject to the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrine as such constitutes confidential information. As a result it is a category exempted from disclosure under RSA 91-A:5 and is subject to a reasonable restriction allowed by the Constitution."
  
     As a result Attorney Eggert filed suit in the Rockingham Superior Court on behalf of the Hampstead School Board on February 19. In the suit it stated among other things, that the "Petitioners (Hampstead School District and School Board) believe that it is possible Respondent (SAU 55 ) and its Chair (Kim Farah) are delaying SAU 55 Board member access to, and public disclosure of, the Report to avoid a potential personal impact on upcoming local elections, scheduled to take place on March 10, or the subsequent re-organizational vote of the SAU, during which the Board elects a Chair and Vice Chair."
  
     Judge Wageling in a very detailed decision issued on April 8, ruled that the SAU 55's March 18, move to dismiss the Hampstead School Board suit is denied and the Hampstead's board request for an Order compelling the SAU to immediately produce the report to the Hampstead School Board members is granted. "The report shall be provided to Hampstead within 10 days of the issuance of this order."  The Judge's decision denied Hampstead's request of attorney's fee but the judge granted Hampstead's request for an a award of costs.

The Judge noted that at the outset the Court needed to resolve the merits of the issue of denying the report to board members with the crux of the matter being whether the report is exempt from disclosure under RSA 91-A as respondents claim.

Among the Judge's findings is that the report is not exempt from disclosure under the internal personnel practices exemption claimed by the SAU and further that it doesn't meet requirements of being protected under the client-attorney privilege also claimed by the SAU. The Judge further states that under the balancing test the relevant considerations favor disclosure and that the benefits of disclosure to the public are quite substantial. In support of this the Judge points out that the SAU spent $28,600 tax payer dollars on the investigation and report concerning official misconduct by individuals holding publicly-elected positions thus the public has a significant interest in the disclosure of the report's information.

The Judge states that Farah's statement that the investigation conclusions showed the allegations were without merit without allowing the public in any meaningful way to vet this characterization is inconsistent with the purpose of RSA 91-A. Finally it is noted that the fact that one segment of the SAU 55 Board is invoking attorney-client privilege on a work product and refusing access to another segment of that board supports Hampstead's position.

Hampstead School Board Chair Caitlin Parnell and Vice Chair Yasenka said they were pleased with the decision the Judge made.

 

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