Since Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas proposed that members of the Board of School Committee pay te full premium cost for the health and dental benefits taken by members of the Board of School Committee, the Manchester School district has refused to release any information regarding which members take the benefits, the benefits they take and the cost both to them and the district for their taking them; until now, that is.

Girard at Large filed several requests for the information under the state’s Right to Know Law, only to see the district violate the law both in spirit and practice.  Superintendent Debra Livingston ignored our original request made during the Monday, September 14, 2015 school board meeting at which Gatsas made his proposal.  On Wednesday, we sent a follow up message making clear that request was made pursuant to RSA 91-A, the state’s Right to Know Law.

In response, Livingston said the district would reply within five days.  In response to our asking why the district was withholding the information for five days given that the law requires information immediately available be made available immediately, Livingston said it was to “consult with legal counsel.”  Meanwhile, city of Manchester Human Resources Director Jane Gile sent us the information we requested about which aldermen took the city’s benefits package in two hours.

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After a week without further reply, well beyond the questionably invoked legal time-frame, we renewed our request and also asked members of the school board directly to divulge whether or not they took the benefits and to direct the district to provide the cost information to us if they did not know what it was.  In response, Ward 10 Committeeman John Avard sent an email to the district and all members of the board suggesting that the district not respond to our request, claiming it would violate federal HIPPA laws and subject the city, school district and this media outlet to fines of $20,000 for every person’s information that was released.

Avard did not reply after we reminded him that the district provided the benefits information after same argument was made in 2012, though it took nine weeks and came after an illegal meeting with the board’s attorney.  Avard also did not reply to our question regarding whether or not he was advising his fellow elected officials to withhold information about the taxpayer provided benefits they were receiving.

Subsequent to the multiple requests we made to the school board members in the back and forth with Avard, only Ward 2 Committeewoman Debra Langton responded to our request.  She said she did not take either the district’s health or dental benefits.  During the school board’s meeting on September 14, 2015, Ward 7 School Committeeman Ross Terrio said he did not take benefits from the district.

Today, Ward 11 Committeewoman Kate Desrochers announced she took a single person plan saying

“I objected to my information being released to these individuals because I believe that their reason for doing so was for political reasons “in the public interest”. I take the health insurance, as a single recipient. I did so because it was the most cost efficient for me, relating to the plan I had been currently on, my income, and the fact that by taking the position on the school board would eliminate my ability to work a second job, which had been affording additional income to my family (I am a single mom).”

Desrochers accused both Girard at Large Host Rich Girard and Union Leader reporter Paul Feeley of making “politically motivated requests for information” in her post which concluded by saying: “If you have any questions, contact me directly, but don’t expect me to play a game at what is best for me and my family.”

In the comment thread under Desrochers’ post, Avard admitted, as he did in 2012, that he took his health benefits from the district.  As he also did in 2012, he justified it as follows:

…I take the health insurance and the dental insurance for myself and my family. I do so because I am self employed in an industry where I make no money if I am not personally in the office working on my patients. The amount of expense this offsets affords me the ability to do my job as a member of the BOSC above and beyond the basic requirements of the job…The hundreds of additional hours I have put in for negotiations alone more than justifies the cost of the insurance policy. I have repeatedly calculated the cost/investment and every time I have come to the decision that should I relinquish my seat on the BOSC, return the lost hours to my business and pay for my insurance as a self employed individual, I will enjoy a significant increase in my net income. I willingly lose a lot of money to do the service I do, but I do so willingly, happily and proudly.

As an editorial comment, Girard at Large made this inquiry for one reason and one reason only:  Due diligence.  The mayor of Manchester proposed requiring school board members who take the district’s health and or dental insurance plans to pay 100% of the premium.  The mayor’s motion was tabled after Board Vice Chair Sarah Ambrogi argued that nobody knew how much money the measure would save because nobody knew who took what for benefits.  As if the mayor’s proposal wasn’t enough of a reason to seek that information, Ambrogi’s argument in moving to table it was.

While we certainly have opinions about whether or not board members, who are classified as part time employees, should have the benefits available to them, that has not been the subject of our coverage.  We have focused exclusively, as we have on multiple occasions with multiple issues, on disclosure and transparency.  We have said it before and will write it here:  Regardless of one’s opinion of whether or not these benefits should be available, the public has a right to know who takes what and the associated costs.

The district should not have had to provide the information, let alone spend money on legal counsel to determine what, if anything, should be released, either.  The individual board members should have stepped forward, as former Ward 3 School Committeeman Christopher Stewart did in 2012, and disclose whether or not they take the benefit plan and direct the district to provide the associated costs.

At the time, Stewart told Girard at Large that his constituents “deserved to know what I cost them and determine if I’m worth it.”  Stewart was reelected.

The information released by the district today shows that in addition to Desrochers and Avard, Erika Connors (Ward 8), Kathy Staub (at-Large) and Connie Van Houten (Ward 12).  All five take the dental insurance.  The total subsidy paid by the district for the school board members’ benefit plans is over $ 71,500.

Note:  We just want the school district to know how hurt our feelings to see that we were not addressed in their release of the information.  Are our efforts not to be recognized?  🙁  [Just so you know, our feelings really aren’t hurt.]