By Maggie Cassidy
Valley News Staff Writer
Cornish — Pandemonium erupted when the School Board chairman announced that he would not allow public comment at the board’s meeting Tuesday night, even as the audience of nearly 100 demanded the chance to speak on the controversy surrounding a board member’s social media post.
The coarsely worded post by Holly Taft was widely interpreted as a derogatory comment directed at people who attended a previous board meeting.
Despite the lack of a formal public comment period, many in attendance shouted out calls for Taft’s resignation. At least two petitions — one, with more than 50 signatures, calling for Taft to resign; the other, with about 30 signatures, calling for the resignation of the entire board — circulated the Cornish Elementary School gymnasium.
“In my opinion, she exemplifies a very immature young woman who is not ready for a leadership position,” former selectman Merilynn Bourne, who organized the first petition, said after the meeting. “She needs to go.”
The bedlam reignited about an hour into the meeting, when board members, bombarded with more catcalls from the audience, abruptly voted to adjourn the meeting and gathered privately with the SAU 6 Superintendent in a separate room for about 10 minutes. The proceedings later continued with the help of a former town moderator.
School Board Chairman Troy Simino opened the meeting with a prepared statement that stopped short of condemning Taft’s Facebook comment, in which she made reference to meeting “f—tards.” Taft has said she was not talking about people at a School Board meeting earlier this month but will not identify who she was referring to.
“It is without question that the comments seen in the light of public view are coarse and not reflective of polite company,” Simino said. “It is also without question that there have been comments that fall into the same category posted by others in reference to members of the School Board and the superintendent of schools. The one undeniable truth is this: Each of us is far from perfect.”
Board member Sharon St. Martin made a motion to add public comment back onto the agenda, but when it failed to garner a second, attendees began chanting, “shame, shame.”
One man, Peter Lynch, then tried to speak to the board, but he was cut off by Simino, who told him, “I will have you removed from the meeting.”
“Call 911, do whatever you want,” Lynch said, questioning whether Simino was following proper procedure.
The chief of police, Doug Hackett, stood off to the side of the gymnasium throughout the meeting.
Simino then said he would accept a motion to adjourn the meeting, but Lynch ultimately left the building, and the meeting continued.
The chants of “shame, shame” intensified, with some people stomping their feet on the bleachers and general booing increasing. One person shouted “a–hole.”
The controversy stems from a Facebook comment that Taft wrote on a friend’s wall last week.
“I met more f—tards in one place last night than I have met collectively in my whole life,” she wrote, the day after a contentious School Board meeting in which Taft’s view on volunteers bringing toddlers with them to school was at odds with many of the residents in attendance.
Taft has acknowledged she wrote the Facebook comment but has maintained that she was not referring to the people at the School Board meeting. Asked Tuesday night who she had been referring to, Taft said she’d “have to be an idiot to answer that” because she would offend who she was talking about.
Taft said the comment was blown out of proportion by residents who don’t share her fiscally conservative positions. She said many of the people calling for her resignation were teachers and their friends and family members who are displeased by her willingness to take a hard look at student achievement benchmarks.
“This has been a character assassination,” she said, noting she has no plans to resign unless the controversy starts to affect her children negatively.
When a reporter asked Simino after the meeting about the board’s thought process in disallowing public comments, he declined to answer, citing the work of Jim Kenyon, a Valley News columnist who has previously written about the volunteer policy and Taft’s Facebook post.
During his prepared statement, Simino said the focus of the night should be to determine the best Cornish Elementary School grade consolidation options for the upcoming school year, which is “far too important to set aside for other discussions or the emotion of the moment.”
Jim Barker, one of the residents calling out for Taft’s resignation during the meeting, said afterward that he believes elected officials should be held to higher standards of conduct than the general public. He said Simino did a “terrible job” by banning public comment.
“To close down public discussion, I find unconscionable,” he said.
The long-discussed issues on Tuesday night’s meeting agenda — deciding whether to combine a pilot pre-K program with kindergarten, and determining which elementary school grades to combine next year, when the school will lose one teacher to budget cuts — were already contentious.
After the initial uproar, two school teachers made a lengthy presentation recommending the new program and combining grades 2 through 4 with two teachers. Some of the board’s questions about the recommendation appeared to irk many audience members, who groaned or rolled their eyes.
Tensions rose again before the board could make a vote, and Simino again threatened to adjourn, and this time the board followed through. Board member Cathy Parks made the motion to adjourn and Taft seconded it.
Around the gymnasium, Simino argued loudly with Bourne, several people walked up to Taft and chided her — “I bet you’re proud of yourself,” one said — and a group of people in a hallway were on the cusp of a shouting match.
All of the board members gathered in a separate room except for St. Martin, the board member who had made the motion to add public comment back to the agenda, who remained at the meeting table.
Simino eventually came out and asked St. Martin to gather with the rest of the board.
At that time, Peter Burling, the former longtime Town Meeting moderator and a lawyer, went to the board and offered to act as moderator for 10 minutes of public comment that would be limited to the grade combination issue. Burling also presented this idea to the audience, who applauded and agreed.
After about 10 minutes of moderated questions from the audience related to the issue and another 20 minutes of board discussion, board members ultimately approved both of the recommendations from the teachers. The pre-K/kindergarten pilot was approved 3-1-1, with St. Martin, Taft and Glenn Thornton voting yes, Simino voting no and Parks abstaining. The grades 2/3/4 combination was approved 3-2, with St. Martin, Taft and Parks voting in favor.
Bourne said she has never seen such a public meeting, adding that disallowing public comment only made things worse.
“It just made us angry,” she said. “We’re the voters. We’re the taxpayers. You can’t tell us, the voters, that we can’t speak to issues that we think are critical.”