The story of the Board of School Committee’s decision to terminate the HOPE program at West High School seems to change as its supporters seek to further vilify those who voted against it. Despite ample public statements, the misrepresentations wilfully continue, some of which intentionally impugn the professional reputation of district staff as they search for a rational while they ignore what was said. Instead, they substitute their “feelings” or “beliefs” by inventing their own “facts,” which conveniently fit their desired narrative.
The oft and most egregious falsehood comes from Ward 10 Alderman Bill Barry, who has accused alleged opponents of the program of deciding to go into non-public session to discuss the program’s fate on August 13, 2018, because two pro-HOPE school board members were absent. This, he says, deprived HOPE of the votes necessary to keep alive. Barry has repeatedly complained the matter wasn’t on the agenda.
Though the item for non-public session was on the agenda, it is true that discussion about the HOPE program was not. The reason for that is Mayor Joyce Craig (D-Ward 1) refused to place it there. The original draft of the October 13, 2018 agenda prepared by board Vice-Chair Arthur Beaudry (D-Ward 9) actually contained a discussion item about HOPE. Supposedly fearful the discussion might impugn the reputation of HOPE Director Matt Courchesne, Craig refused to allow the item insisting a non-public discussion take place instead. There were two votes against going into non-public, mine and Lisa Freeman’s (R-Ward 5).
The discussion in non-public, which unfortunately is not captured in the minutes, started with my challenging the need to be in non-public regarding the program given the public discussions that had already been had. Mayor Craig assured the board that a person’s reputation would be at stake and that she was trying to protect the city from a potential lawsuit. As one can see by the minutes that were ultimately unsealed, more on that later, there was no reason for that non-public session to have been held. During the session, several board members, including myself, Freeman, Jimmy Lehoux (R-Ward 8) and Sarah Ambrogi (D-Ward 1) objected to the discussion saying it should have been public. Craig refused to go back into public session.
I agree with Barry that Courchesne should have been present at the meeting to answer any questions or challenges from the board and determine whether or not it should be in public, as is his right under the state’s Right to Know Law. If he’d been there, I have no doubt he would have had the discussion in public. Once Beaudry was overruled by Craig on whether or not the item should be on the agenda, it became her responsibility to inform Courchesne of the coming non-public discussion she insisted be had. She did not and only she knows why. It had nothing to do with anybody trying to take advantage of the absence of any board members.
So emphatic were Lehoux and I that the discussion should have been in public, we petitioned to have the minutes unsealed. Lehoux went directly to the mayor asking her to unseal the minutes in an email. I had a motion placed on the agenda which, according to Beaudry, Craig tried to disallow. Fortunately, the rules of the board require communications from board members to be placed on the agenda. Craig told both Lehoux and Beaudry that before allowing the item, she would have the district’s legal counsel review the minutes and determine whether or not they should stay secret. The attorney rejected Craig’s claim that anybody’s reputation was at stake and said there would be no liability to the district were they to be released.
While Craig admitted she made a mistake and made her decision to err on the side of caution, she has let Barry and others go uncorrected as they slam the school board for “sneaking” an item improperly into non-public session. Instead, she has allowed the board to get hit like a pinata over something she did because she disagreed with the board’s decision. This kind of thing embitters people to one another as well as the boards to each other. Her refusal to correct the record and put the wood to these flat falsehoods is opportunistic, cowardly and dishonest.
Thanks to Lehoux and me, the minutes are now a matter of public record, the opposition of David Scannell (D-Ward 2) notwithstanding.
By the way, my motion was to also have our attorney review the non-public minutes of a previous non-public session at which the HOPE program was discussed. Expect more minutes to be released.
There are many other items to address, such as whether or not Barry and Alderman at-Large Dan O’Neil, who is Courchesne’s uncle, violated Section 9.03(g) of the Manchester City Charter by asking West Principal Rick Dichard to take Courchesne’s program into the school, whether or not the Board of Mayor and Aldermen violated the city’s procurement code by awarding a $30,000 contract without a bid or other formal process, why the aldermen ignored Mayor Ted Gatsas’ warning in December, 2017 that only the school board could allow the program to operate and whether or not the school board acted in a timely manner given the first time any school board member became aware of HOPE’s operation at West was from a meeting of the Joint Education Committee on May 30, 2018. The resolution of these issues would not only shed more light on how these things came about and, obviously, counter the false narrative Barry, O’Neil and crew continue to perpetuate. However, it would also bring a level of tedium to this post that would make it less than useful.
That all said, there is one area that does warrant specific attention and that is the continued efforts of Manchester Ink Link publisher Carol Robidoux to somehow tie the board’s actions to newly appointed Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Gillis. She has continued her public utterances surmising that Gillis had something to do with the board’s action because she was Southside’s principal when Courchesne abruptly abandoned the program, stranding 25 kids who relied on him on a daily basis. Despite comments from myself at the August 27, 2018 meeting of the school board emphatically stating that Gillis had had no part in the discussions and was not involved, in any way, in the board’s actions, despite the release of the non-public minutes that show Gillis said nothing and despite an exhaustive explanation on the Girard at Large TV Show, Robidoux continues to state publicly that she “believes” the board’s actions were tied to Gillis’ objections to the program. She is wrong and she knows it. She owes Gillis, who is a hardworking and capable administrator, an apology.
It is particularly vexing when a member of the media, who proclaims herself an objective journalist and who has launched a farcical crusade against “incivility” in Manchester’s politics, continues to foster ill will towards an individual innocent of the alleged actions by propagating a “belief” unsupported by any facts because she supports the program. There is nothing “civil” about birthing rumors that are demonstrably false, even if “it’s for the children.” Nor is there anything civil about mischaracterizing the school board’s actions when the actual facts are evident. Robidoux, by the way, for all her blather on this topic, has assiduously ignored reporting that evident information and avoided any criticism of those pushing these false facts. One has to wonder why. She clearly supports the program, so perhaps the ends justify the means. She clearly supports these malicious manipulators, so perhaps she has to avoid killing the message to avoid harming her favorite messengers: Mayor Craig and aldermen Barry and O’Neil. She also clearly wants to be seen as an objective journalist, so perhaps she has to carry the false narrative to avoid being seen as biased.
Whatever the reason, rest assured, “it’s for the children.”