N.H. school board ordered to turn over sealed meeting minutes

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Adistrict’s school board must make public the minutes of a private board meetingabout possible misuse of funds, a state judge has ruled.

The New HampshireUnion Leader sued the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District forthe minutes of the meeting from April 24, in which the members discussed aninvestigation into the possible misuse of district funds, according to thejudge’s ruling.

The Union Leaderalso sued for a report by attorney Dean Eggert, an independent investigator,who had been hired by the school district to look into former SuperintendentTrevor Ebel’s use of a district-provided credit card.

After the April meeting adjourned, its minutes and thereport were sealed for 50 years.

The paper requested the records under New Hampshire’s Rightto Know law.

Judge Kenneth Brown of Hillsborough County Superior CourtNorth in Manchester ruled May 31 that the district must turn over the minutesof the meeting, though it may redact the names of people who cooperated in theinvestigation.

However, the judge ruled the board does not have to turnover the report on the former superintendent’s credit card use.

“The School District contends that Eggert’s report iscategorically exempt from disclosure as a ‘record pertaining to internalpersonnel practices,’” Brown wrote. “The court agrees.”

Gregory Sullivan, the attorney representing the paper, said thejudge’s ruling was a partial victory.

“We were pleased that the judge saw fit to unseal theminutes that had been sealed for 50 years,” Sullivan said.

He said the redaction of names of the people who cooperatedin the investigation is done to encourage people to cooperate in the futurewithout fear of their names being revealed.

Sullivan said he “was very disappointed [the judge] saw fitto leave the investigator’s report sealed.”

The government often uses the “personnel matters” exemptionfar too broadly and the court recognized that, Sullivan said.

He said he did not know if his client would instruct him toappeal the decision and continue trying to obtain the report.

Geoffrey Brock, chairman of the school board, said in anemail that when the investigation was complete, Eggert recommended the boardhear the investigation “in non-public” pursuant to New Hampshire’s Right toKnow law.

“The board followedour attorney’s recommendations, heard the findings and sealed both the reportand the minutes of the session,” Brock said.

The board’s goals were simple, he said.

“We wanted to complywith the law, and we wanted to prevent to the extent possible any districtliability for invasion of privacy, character defamation, interference withfuture job opportunities, etc.,” he said.

He said the board’sobjectives of complying with the law and minimizing district liability wereachieved by the ruling.

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer