First Meeting of New School Board Becomes Contentious

March 27, 2015
 

by Barbara O’Brien

Just one week after Windham’s annual Election Day, the re-configured five-member school board held its first meeting.  The traditional swearing in ceremony went well, with polite applause for each of the four successful candidates taking his or her oath of office.  Those being sworn in for the first time as school board members were Tom Murray and Daniel Popovici-Muller.  School District Moderator Betty Dunn was sworn in for another consecutive term and Anne-Marie O’Neil took her first oath as school district treasurer.

Appreciation was also paid to former school board members Michael Joanis and Jerome Rekart, who failed to win a second term.  “Mike and Jerry did some great things,” board member Rob Breton said, adding that he hopes the two will continue to be involved in working with the school district.  Board member Dennis Senibaldi said, “Their service to the school district will definitely be missed.”  “They put their heart and soul into this job,” board member Ken Eyring commented.

Unlike most school board meetings, however, where perhaps a half-dozen residents are scattered throughout the meeting room, those attending this meeting were packed in like proverbial sardines.  Each of the rows of folding chairs was filled.  People lined the walls and were even sitting on the floor.  Those who couldn’t squeeze inside the meeting room were trying to see and hear from the adjacent hallway.  The meeting room is limited to no more than 40 occupants.  It was estimated that in excess of 100 people were in attendance.  It was not made known who called the Windham Fire Department, but less than an hour after the meeting had convened, several firefighters arrived and Deputy Chief Bill Martineau announced that the meeting would either have to be relocated or some of the crowd would have to volunteer to leave.  Subsequently, the meeting was moved next door to town hall and reconvened 45 minutes later.

From the conversations that could be heard throughout the room, it was apparent that those who were in attendance had a specific reason for being there.  Many of these residents commented that they were not happy with the results of the recent election and were concerned that the majority of the new school board intended to slash the operating budget that had just been approved by voters a week earlier.  As it turned out, however, the 2015-2016 school district operating budget didn’t even come up for discussion for a long time.  The major topic of the evening turned out to be who would be the school board’s chairman for the ensuing year.

Of the five current school board members, Dennis Senibaldi has served the longest (two years), while Ken Eyring and Rob Breton have each served for one year.  Murray is new to the school board, although he was a member of the zoning board of adjustment for many years, serving for a portion of that time as chairman.  Popovici-Muller has not held public office in Windham, previously.

The process to select a chairman and vice chairman began with Breton nominating Senibaldi as chairman.  Senibaldi had served as vice chairman this past year.  “You’ve earned this opportunity,” Breton told Senibaldi.  Breton said that Senibaldi has contacts that others don’t.  Breton’s motion was not seconded, however, until Senibaldi made the motion himself.  The motion, subsequently, failed by a vote of 3 to 2.  Only Breton and Senibaldi voted to elect Senibaldi as chairman.  Eyring, Murray and Popovici-Muller voted in opposition.

Following Senibaldi’s defeat, however, several residents came to the podium to offer him their support.  Laura Bellavia said she didn’t often agree with Senibaldi’s opinions, but still felt he deserved to be chairman.  “He’s due this position,” she said.  Kelly McAllister said she’s been impressed with Senibaldi’s thoughtfulness over the past two years and feels he has shown himself to be professional.  Andrea Peters said Senibaldi “deserves” the position of chairman.  “He is the most qualified to do so,” she said.  Former school board member Beth Valentine, who campaigned for the two incumbents who lost re-election, said she’s hardly ever agreed with Senibaldi, but does feel that he listens and weighs in on issues.  “I appreciate his thoughtfulness,” Valentine said.  Michelle Farrell, also a retired school board member, said she feels Senibaldi has proven himself to be a listener.  There’s “a huge learning curve” in becoming chairman, Danielle Stuttgart said.  “We need Dennis’ experience.”

When school board members who opposed Senibaldi’s nomination as chairman were asked to reconsider their decision, however, they declined to do so.  Murray then nominated Eyring as chairman.  “I have struggled with this decision,” Murray said, adding that he had evaluated the pros and cons of each individual on the school board, even putting together a spread sheet based on a point system.  “Ken (Eyring) came out on top,” Murray said.

Senibaldi was obviously incensed by the nomination of Eyring as chairman, striking back by saying he couldn’t support Eyring’s nomination because he felt Eyring had divulged “confidential legal information” regarding the now defunct Cenergistic energy management contract.  “I respectively disagree,” Murray said of Senibaldi’s allegation.  “This is nothing but sour grapes,” Murray said.  Eyring said that Senibaldi had shown him a copy of the email a week earlier and asked several times if he would support him as chairman.  Eyring said he had declined to do so, repeatedly.

In explaining Senibaldi’s allegation that he had divulged a confidential legal issue, Eyring said he had spoken to an attorney regarding an interpretation of the non-appropriation clause in the proposed Cenergistic contract, in order to procure a second opinion on the issue.  “There was no violation,” Eyring said.  Murray cited state regulations that allow access to this type of governmental records.

“Ken has done nothing wrong,” Murray said.  “I don’t care,” Senibaldi shouted, claiming that legal opinions should only come from school district counsel.  Senibaldi, who was sitting as acting chairman at the time, refused to let Eyring speak on the matter.

A vote on the chairman was then held, with Eyring winning 3 to 2.  Voting in favor of Eyring as chairman were Murray, Popovici-Muller and Eyring.  Voting against were Breton and Senibaldi.

Tom Murray was then elected as vice chairman, also by an identical 3 to 2 vote.  Senibaldi said he’d rather have Breton as vice chairman.  “It would help set the tone for the new board,” Senibaldi said.  Breton also opposed Murray being vice chairman.

“This board needs school board experience,” Breton said.  “No disrespect to Mr. Murray, but you need to get your legs under you, first.”

Eyring said he had no reservations about Murray serving as vice chairman, noting his experience on the zoning board of adjustment and citizens facilities committee.  “Mr. Murray is very level-headed; a thinker,” Eyring said.

After being elected as chairman, Eyring took a few minutes to explain his stance on the legal issue.  Eyring said he had spoken with Windham’s Town Administrator David Sullivan regarding the non-appropriation clause, following a significant amount of input from voters who were concerned about the Cenergistic contract.  As a follow-up, Eyring then requested a second opinion from an attorney in the field of municipal law.  “I did nothing wrong,” Eyring said.  “These are very serious allegations being made by Mr. Senibaldi.”  “I will not be coerced!”  Eyring said.  “This is very troubling.  I was hoping we could all move forward in one cohesive movement for the betterment of the school district.”

Popovici-Muller noted that discussing matters of the law is always a complex issue and the situation needs to be thoroughly vetted.  “This is very disturbing,” Breton added.  “We need to hear from legal counsel directly.”

“That would be very prudent,” Superintendent Winfried Feneberg said, agreeing that information should come from the legal counsel with whom the district has contracted.

Eyring said he had no problem bringing in the school district’s legal counsel for consultation.  “I have nothing to hide,” Eyring said.

Resident Eileen Mashimo said she had received legal correspondence from the school district, through the Right-to-Know Law (91-A), many times over the past few years.  “What can’t be divulged is very limited,” she said.  “Not every correspondence with a lawyer is confidential, even though it might say so.”

Public input following Senibaldi’s accusation generally focused on the need for school board members to focus on students and their education.  “The schools are falling apart,” said one resident.  “Stop with the politics and focus on what’s important.”  Resident Cynthia Finn said she was “so disappointed” in the turn of events at the meeting.  “I expected the school board to be civil,” she said.  “Please move forward for the sake of the kids; for the sake of the town.”  Resident Gary Carboneau agreed with Finn.  “The school board hasn’t gotten a lot accomplished in the past year or so,” he said.  “You need to work together.  Put the past aside for a better future,” Carboneau said.  Resident Rich Amari said he was expecting a new beginning for the school board.  “Meet your obligations.  Get the job done,” Amari told school administrators.

Following the March 17 meeting, Windham Selectman Bruce Breton explained how Senibaldi had come into possession of Eyring’s email to the second attorney.  Breton became involved when Eyring asked him for advice on whom to contact for a second opinion on the non-appropriation clause.  Breton said that, sometime after that, Senibaldi had been visiting his home and had accessed Breton’s email account without permission and without Breton’s knowledge.  It was at this time, Breton said, that Senibaldi read Eyring’s correspondence, and then forwarded Eyring’s email to himself.  Selectman Breton said he discovered what had occurred after the fact.

“I really don’t think that was the proper thing for Dennis to do,” Breton said of Senibaldi’s behavior.  “I was a little taken aback by this,” he said.  Breton also said that he and Senibaldi have been friends for years and he was surprised by Senibaldi’s covert actions.  “There was probably a lack of judgment on Dennis’ part,” Breton said.  Selectman Breton cautioned all school board members to help bring an end to the contention and work together for the benefit of the students, staff and the taxpayers.

During the March 24, school board meeting, it was decided that a non-meeting will be held with school district counsel Gordon Graham on Tuesday, April 7 to discuss the Right-to-Know Law (91-A) and its implications regarding the second opinion sought by Chairman Eyring and whether or not it was a violation.  It is anticipated that the opinion given by Attorney Graham will be discussed in public at a later time, but when that time might be remains undetermined.

Popovici-Muller asked that school board members have time to digest the information provided by Graham before discussing it in public.  Senibaldi wanted the entire process done in public, including the meeting with Graham, since it involves elected officials and not an employee.  Breton took more of a wait-and-see attitude.  “Things could be very clear after receiving advice from school district counsel,” Breton said.  “We might be able to reach a decision right afterward.  It’s premature to assume we’ll need extra time.”

“From my perspective, I would like some time to hear the attorney, and then think it through,” Eyring said.  “It’s not unreasonable to ask for time to digest the information.  I have the right to defend myself properly” against Senibaldi’s allegations, Eyring said.

Murray also said he’d like “to have some time to mull over the attorney’s opinion,” before discussing the issue further.  “I want no perception of impropriety on the part of the school board,” Murray said.  The school board’s next regular meeting is also on April 7.  The public meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the Community Development Building.  A subsequent meeting will be held on Tuesday, April 21, also at 7 p.m.