By Ray Carbone
SUNAPEE – In a unanimous vote last Wednesday, the Sunapee School Board voted 4-0 to initiate a public hearing process to find a new board member after the recent resignation of Heather Furlong.
Furlong, who was elected last year, resigned after her husband Joseph Furlong was arrested by local police on March 15 and charged with three counts of forgery and two counts of false documentation. Authorities claim that he and an acquaintance, Adam Gaw of Manchester, altered an email that was originally written by resident Jan Bettencourt.
According to court papers filed by Police Chief David Cahill and the NH Attorney General’s office, the alleged forgery took place shortly before the March 2016 election when Bettencourt and Heather Furlong were among three candidates running to fill two three-year school board seats. Bettencourt finished third and some observers believe the doctored email damaged her reputation and cost her the election.
In his court affidavit, Chief Cahill wrote that Bettencourt had told him that the altered email “caused an immediate backlash against her.”
About 50 people attended last week’s board meeting at Sunapee Middle High School and several asked the board to appoint John Augustine to fill out the next year of Heather Furlong’s term until new elections are held next March. Augustine had the third most votes of the five candidates who ran for two board seats this year.
Early in the meeting, Don Bettencourt, the husband of Jan, said the board’s decision of how to fill the seat would indicate “whether ours is a government of the people or a government of the school board.” He said that while the board legally is permitted to choose among several ways how it chooses its new member, the current members would simply be “flexing their legal muscles” by instituting a search process rather than appointing Augustine.
Jan Bettencourt said that the board faced a similar situation in 2015 after two members resigned shortly after the election. At that time, the board bypassed the option of appointing her, although she had come in second in a two-person race. “Fortunately, there was a public outcry and I was appointed to the one-year seat,” she told the group. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson.”
Jody Mason also supported Augustine, pointing out that the election was only nine days before the meeting, and that the more than 300 voters had weathered a significant snowstorm to cast their ballots for him.
‘The democratic procedure took place and you guys appear to be playing the same game over and over again. I’m just pretty well disgusted.’ – Paul Mason, Sunapee resident
But when the board began discussing its options, vice-chairman Brian Garland noted that he was elected in 2016 with more than 600 votes and that he didn’t want to do his supporters a “disservice” by not looking for the best possible candidate in the community. “Signing up for a three-year term on the school board, that’s a lot,” he said. A one-term term could be less daunting, and therefore attract some more qualified people, he added. “I’m in favor of looking at pool of candidates. I would say we do a posting and an interview process.”
The other members agreed. They decided to announce the vacant seat to the community and ask interested people to apply for consideration before March 31, 12 p.m., though the superintendent’s office. Residents should include their names, address, contract information and a statement about their interest in the board in a message to Superintendent Russ Holden at rholden@sunapeeschools. Depending on the number of candidates, the board could hold public interviews with applicants on Monday, April 3, Tuesday, April 3, and Wednesday, April 4.
In a public comment session after the vote, Paul Mason said he was frustrated with the board’s decision. “The democratic procedure took place and you guys appear to be playing the same game over and over again,” he said. “I’m just pretty well disgusted.”
“I’m not shocked but I am disappointed,” commented Jody Mason. “Heather Furlong sat on the board for an entire year, knowing that an investigation was going on. Had she resigned when she should have properly, we would have gone to the third most vote-getter (i.e., Mrs. Bettencourt).”
After the meeting, Jan Bettencourt said that she was not seeking to serve on the school board at this time. “I was a teacher for many years,” she said, adding that she originally ran for a seat because she wanted to use her experience to serve the educational community. “I went to this school board’s meetings for three years (before I ran) and I never heard any discussion about quality of education or student outcome, things that were important to me… They only discussed capital improvement plans.”
Don Bettencourt said that the board’s decision means that the members will likely pick someone who already supports their approach.
“It’s hard when there’s a lack of interest in doing the right thing,” Jan Bettencourt concluded.
Published reports indicate that Augustine intends to apply for the vacant seat through the school board’s interview process.
Gaw has been charged with three counts of forgery and two counts of false documentation. He and Joseph Furlong are scheduled to be arraigned on May 2.
This story first appeared in the InterTown Record of Sutton NH, published March 28,2017.