BRENTWOOD, N.H. — Both the Hampstead School Board and the School Administrative Unit 55 Board argued their cases in Rockingham Superior Court on Thursday, after the Hampstead board filed a lawsuit against the SAU board for the release of a report detailing an investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment created by the SAU 55 board.
SAU 55 is composed of the Hampstead and Timberlane school districts. Members of both school boards serve on the SAU 55 board.
The complaint was filed by lawyer Michael Eaton in Rockingham Superior Court on Feb. 18, the same day SAU 55's lawyer, Debra Weiss Ford, denied the board access to the document under the state's right-to-know law.
Eaton presented his argument to Judge Marguerite Wageling, saying that because the investigation was regarding the official conduct of elected officials, the document should be made available to the public.
Eaton said that releasing the investigation to the public would “foster confidence in the SAU and promote government accountability.”
Attorney Daniel Schwarz from Jackson Lewis represented SAU 55 and argued that the conclusions of the investigation are confidential under work product privilege. Work product is the legal term for a lawyer’s notes, writing and other documents.
“You cannot have a more paradigm example of what is defined under work product privilege,” Schwarz said.
Schwarz also argued that the report, which cost taxpayers $28,600, should be kept confidential due to the attorney-client privilege exemption.
Both Schwarz and Eaton agreed that SAU board Chairman Kim Farah unilaterally commissioned a legal council to conduct the investigation on behalf of the board which prompted Judge Wageling to ask for clarification as to who the client was.
“If (Farah) was acting on behalf of the board and that is therefore the client, of course the board should be in touch to see the work they had completed,” Wageling said.
Schwarz said that the board was not entitled to see the investigation under New Hampshire’s right-to-know law. Eaton previously argued that the Hampstead board, and the public, should have access to the findings of the investigation under the right-to-know law because it was commissioned for “public accountability purposes.”
Eaton said the point of the right-to-know law is to “provide the utmost information to the public about what is going on,” but now “the public just has to take the word of the SAU chair.”
Schwarz argued that Eaton was stating that “once you have got an investigation into a public official, that means there is no right-to-know law, and that is not the case.”
The Eagle-Tribune also filed a right-to-know request for a copy of the investigation, which was denied by SAU 55.
During a Dec. 4, 2019, SAU board meeting, Farah said that the investigation found no evidence of a hostile work environment, but she did not release the report or discuss its contents.
In the lawsuit, the Hampstead board notes that the SAU 55 Superintendent Earl Metzler has made similar allegations about the SAU 55 creating a hostile work environment.
The complaint also references a November 2018 Hampstead School Board resolution disapproving of the behavior of certain SAU 55 board members, calling the conduct “abusive, harassing, and unprofessional.”