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Guildhall school board votes to freeze funds until tuition issue resolved


March 01, 2012
GUILDHALL — The Guildhall School Board canceled a special meeting scheduled to be held Feb. 29 at the elementary school to discuss and potentially take some action on the board's passage of a motion at its three-hour meeting on Feb. 20 "to freeze the District's checkbook," explained board chairman Sharal Plumley in a Monday morning telephone interview.

According to the draft minutes of that meeting, clerk Helen Martin, moved "that if some arrangement to guarantee payment to SAU 36 (White Mountains Regional School District) were not made by the end of February vacation (Friday, March 2, to cover the tuition payments for A. S. at the Lancaster School) that all checking for Guildhall School be frozen." Vice chairman Matt Smith seconded the motion, which passed with a split vote in which both Martin and Smith voted "yes," Plumley "no."

The motion was made during the board's regular monthly meeting after the board had discussed an outstanding warrant for a single WMRSD tuition. Some 25 WMRSD tuition payments had been made by treasurer Laura Wilson with the exception of one, according to the draft minutes. When Smith asked why one payment had not been made, Plumley replied that under advice of the attorney representing the board, the bill would be held until litigation had been concluded.

Martin stated that it was alarming to discover that both she and Smith had been unaware of this bill, which had come several weeks prior to the meeting. She also said that she was not pleased with the amount of payments made without the board's knowledge and further displeased that the treasurer write her notes-opinions directly on the bills.

When Martin moved to authorize payment of this remaining tuition bill, audience member Andy Berry said that Smith's second would constitute a conflict of interest because the child whose tuition was not paid is Smith's son.

In part, the pending litigation in which the treasurer's life partner is the lead plaintiff revolves around the issue of whether or not Smith had a conflict of interest when the board adopted a new policy, supported by an Aug. 10 school District vote of 21 to 20, to allow gifted and talented students under a one-year pilot program to attend out-of-district elementary schools before they are in grade six. The only child to be sent out of the district is Smith's, which led to the accusation of a conflict of interest.

That policy was later rescinded on a 54 "yes" to 46 "no" vote at a special school District meeting on Nov. 3.

At that time, town moderator George Blakeslee said he believed that if the vote were to be reversed and the pilot program rescinded, the effect would be immediate and the rescission would take effect at the time of the vote. But he also said the then-proposed rescission would not be retroactive.

The pending litigation will likely determine whether or not the tuition of a student already placed in another District's school would be paid by the Guildhall School District or whether A.S.' parents must pay the cost.

Others at the Feb. 20 meeting offered their opinions, and Martin withdrew her motion, substituting the one that passed on a 2 to 1 vote.

This has left the District — particularly parents of the 21 students who go to the school — confused, Plumley said.

Many apparently believe that this means that the school will close following this week's vacation.

Essex-Caledonia Caledonia Union (ECSU) Chief of Operations Steve Sanborn said in a very brief conversation in his office on Monday afternoon that he does not believe that will be the case, but said he would prefer to defer any comment to the chairman.

Earlier Plumley said she hoped the issues surrounding the "freeze" could be resolved at today's canceled meeting. The board's lawyer Barbara Blackman will be present, and she anticipates that the board will meet in executive session.

If any action is taken, that would be in public session.

Asked if the previous meeting had been contentious, Plumley replied that there had been raised voices and she had had to call for order three times. In retrospect, she said that procedural issues surrounding approval of warrants and issuing checks could be more clearly defined. The treasurer was the one who had drawn the attention of the board's lawyer to the inclusion of a tuition payment for A.S., which she knew to be in litigation. "This is what she does for questionable invoices," Plumley said.

"The teachers are working under contract, and there's no way that the Guildhall School won't open after vacation," Smith said in a Monday morning telephone interview. "There's a teachers' in-service day on Monday, March 5, and the kids are due in school on Tuesday. We're not out to close the school; we just want to see the bill before they are paid."

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