Who Paid for Legal Expenses in NH Tuition Lawsuit? Privatizing Profiteers? Voucher Advocates? or the New Commissioner?
One piece of legislation wending its way through the State legislature in New Hampshire is getting the attention of our local newspaper, the Valley News, and media outlets across the state, including the Manchester Union Leader. The background on HB 557, the so-called “Croydon Bill”, was summarized as follows in the Union Leader when it was filed in January:
Croydon School Board member Jim Peschke has been fighting since 2006 to expand educational choices in the Sullivan County town north of Newport with a population around 700.
The town’s ongoing struggle with the state Department of Education and in the courts over its attempt to send five local children to a nearby Montessori school at taxpayer expense has become a rallying point for school choice advocates throughout the state and beyond.
On Wednesday, Peschke continued the battle as he testified before the House Education Committee on a bill that would essentially allow Croydon and any other town in similar circumstances to do what the courts and Department of Education have said they cannot do.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate last year passed an identical school choice bill only to have it vetoed by Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.
House Bill 557, if signed into law, would allow a school district to assign a child within the district to any state-approved private school, even a religious school, if there is no public school for the child’s grade in the district.
Many of the smaller communities in the state, like Croydon, do not have a local K-12 school district. They contract with larger nearby districts to educate their students, usually through a per-student tuition contract paid for by the sending town.
The Croydon School District has maintained there is nothing in state law that prohibits it from using private schools if that is the best educational option for a student.
As noted above, the battle lines have been drawn on this district for several years, with Croydon’s battle over de facto vouchers gathering financial and political support from those who want unfettered school choice and strong opposition from those who do not want public funds being used for sectarian or any non-public schools.
While the political battle is getting the most attention inside and outside the state, it is the financial support that is getting the attention of the Valley News. In an article in today’s paper, Rob Wolfe provides some background on when the financial issues came into play:
In autumn 2015, the Croydon School Board launched a campaign to finance its legal defense through the online crowdfunding site GoFundMe. Thousands of dollars poured in over the following months, according to a list of donations on the page, and the still-running total stands at around $23,000.
Most of the largest gifts are anonymous, including two donations listed at $14,020 and $3,300 about a year and a half ago.
Jody Underwood, a board member who serves as the panel’s school-choice liaison, said the $14,000 contribution was actually three separate checks that the board received physically, not online, and then added to the campaign.
Underwood last month rejected a Valley News records request under N.H. RSA 91-A, the Right-to-Know Law, for documents such as those checks that would reveal the identities of the major donors.
Ms. Underwood’s contention that the donors would be shielded from the right-to-know law didn’t wash with Andru Volinsky, one of the five Executive Council members who pass judgement on the Governor’s appointees and a staunch advocate for equitable school funding:
Andru Volinsky, a Democratic executive councilor,… said the exemptions Underwood cited did not appear to apply to this case.
“Neither one flies,” he said.
The exemption for “confidential, commercial, or financial information,” he said, “is for something that you might think of as a trade secret. I’m on the Executive Council; if a company submitted a bid and had to submit all of their backup financial data to establish their financial viability until they’re approved, this is the kind of protected financial information that this applies to — not the fact that somebody contributed a certain amount of money.”
Volinsky said the second exemption cited, for invasion of privacy, was a “balancing test” between “what kind of ridicule or invasiveness” a disclosure could create for a person and the pertinence of a disclosure to the activities of a public body.
“This is directly about how the Croydon School District funds itself,” he said. “You can’t get a better description of learning about how Croydon funds itself as a public enterprise.”
Mr. Volinsky might be interested in learning about the donors because there is a suspicion that one of them might have been Frank Edelblut, the recently appointed Commissioner of Education who Mr. Volinsky voted against. The Valley News seems to share this suspicion, and gives some background to explain why Mr. Edelblut might have been a contributor:
New Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, who as a state representative sponsored an earlier version of the bill, refused to answer numerous inquiries by email and phone over the past two weeks about whether he was one of Croydon’s anonymous benefactors.
A visit on Monday morning to the state Department of Education office in Concord did not yield a response, either.
An aide there said Edelblut was busy throughout the day, but promised to convey a request for comment to him.
A short while later, a man who identified himself as “Skip,” and said he handled security for the commissioner, told a reporter to leave the public waiting room and the building — “or,” he said, “I’ll have to call security to remove you.”
Edelblut appeared at a New Hampshire commissioners forum later that day at Concord’s downtown Holiday Inn. He declined to respond to questions in person outside the event.
Volinsky, who sharply questioned Edelblut about his experience and educational beliefs during Executive Council confirmation hearings, urged the new commissioner to address the question.
Edelblut, a consultant and venture capitalist who homeschooled his seven children, has never worked professionally in public education and faced opposition to his appointment from Democrats on the Executive Council and from the state Board of Education.
He was nominated education commissioner after posting strong results as runner-up in the Republican gubernatorial primary last year.
Given his refusal to deny that he was a donor to the lawsuit, it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that he DID make a sizable contribution to the Croydon case. Based on what has transpired at the federal level, if Mr. Edelblut was a donor to the “Croydon” cause he might as well acknowledge it. His donations to a lawsuit defending a district trying to issue de facto vouchers would be no different than Betsy DeVos’ generous donations to various voucher plans and, like DeVos, he would have the full support of his boss and, in all probability, the continuing support of the three executive counselors who voted in favor of his appointment. By avoiding the question he is, in effect, acknowledging some degree of shame or embarrassment relative to his support for the Croydon case or fearful that some might see the donation as unethical given that he was at that time trying to get legislation passed on behalf of the district. Either way, Mr. Edelblut’s evasiveness is not helping his establish credibility among public school leaders and board members who are wary of his intentions.
I salute the Valley News and other newspapers for pursuing the question of who made the donations to the Croydon “go fund me” campaign. If it was a group of small donors from the town who want to act on New Hampshire’s motto “Live Free or Die” by sending their children to whatever non-sectarian school they wish, that seems acceptable. But if the largest donors are privatizers who would profit from the this scheme or wealthy politicians looking to promote legislation they’ve introduced, it is a different story. And like the Valley News and Mr. Volinsky, I believe the public should learn who is footing the bill for a public lawsuit.