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On May 10, 1994, the Religious Right took control of the Merrimack School Board. For two long years, the Merrimack School Board was subject to dealing with non-issues that had nothing to do with educating the children of Merrimack. The entire town was given a black eye by the activites of the Board.

On May 14, 1996, the Religious Right lost majority control of the Merrimack School Board. They lost and they lost big. A record number of Merrimack residents came out and voted. They rejected the Religious Right in a big way (4132 - 1953). In 1997, the remaining two Right Wing board members were replaced with moderate candidates. Finally, we can get back to business.

This page serves to preserve what happened during that long two year period. It is to remind residents of Anytown, USA that this could happen in their town.

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Table of Contents

The Merrimack School Board 94-96
How Did it Happen?
The Board Under the Religious Right
The Christian Coalition Agenda
The Religious Right & Homosexuality
Wake Up Call!
What Can *I* Do?
Links for further information

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The Merrimack School Board - May 1994 through May 1996

*Chris Ager, Chairman
Ken Coleman, Vice Chairman
Brenda Grady
*Ginny Twardosky
*Shelly Uscinski

* = Religious Right Agenda

The five members are elected for staggerd three-year terms.

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How Did it Happen (and what has happened since)?

On May 10, 1994, the Religious Right took control of the Merrimack School Board. How did they do this? They won their elections by speaking out against increased spending in the schools. They won by a very small margin. They did not discuss religion or their true intentions until after the election. The Christian Coalition (CC) was most likely behind this election. The CC previously was active at the federal level. In the past few years they found they could have a much bigger impact at the local level in such groups as school boards and taxpayers associations. Let's take a closer look...

We go back to the election of 1993. It was a two man, low key race for one seat on the board. The final tally was Chris Ager 930 and Bruce Cohen 685. Chris kept to himself for most of the year. Never, ever, did he bring up any controversial topic. Meanwhile, in the background, the Christian Coalition was scheming. They were taking advantage of the fact that school board elections have a very light turnout. In that 1993 election only 1,525 Merrimack residents turned out to vote (13%), the lowest voter turnout in the past six years. The board now consisted of Ken Coleman, Brenda Grady, Chuck Mower, Bob Hamm, and Chris Ager.

In 1994, there were four people running for two seats on the board. This time considerably more people showed up to vote, 23%, and it broke down as follows: Ginny Twardosky 1607, Shelly Uscinski 1519, Ken Coleman 1516, and John Astill 1388. That was a very close race! I don't recall any particular big issues, other than perhaps, spending in the schools. There was no talk of Homosexuality, Creationism, the Moment of Silence or Phonics. However, once Shelly and Ginny aligned with Chris Ager the hidden agenda was brought out in the open, and the rest is history. The board now consisted of Ken Coleman, Brenda Grady, Chris Ager, Shelly Uscinski and Ginny Twardosky. The Religious Right now had majority control of the School Board.

In 1995, Brenda Grady and Ken Coleman were up for re-election. They were joined with several conservatives who would try to make the conservative majority even larger. It was a very emotional election, and the right wing was caught in some heavy negative campaigning. 4,086 voters turned out, 29.3%, a record turnout in a local election in the history of Merrimack. Brenda and Ken were re-elected by a large margin. The Religious Right was caught off-guard, for they thought they held the "silent majority". Shelly Uscinski questioned "where are my people"? The final numbers were Brenda Grady 2296, Ken Coleman 2223, Dale Adams 1482, Dave Nichols 833, Michael Lovejoy 787, and Francis Donohue 218. The board remained the same. The next year was very difficult for the town of Merrimack.

In 1996, Chris Ager was up for re-election. He chose not to run. Rosemarie Rung and Ginny Cadarette both ran for the seat. This was a key election. Rosemarie would align with Ken and Brenda while Ginny would align with Shelly and Ginny T. The voters spoke. They spoke loudly and they spoke clearly. For the second year in a row, Merrimack set a record for voter turnout in a local election, 41.5%! Residents came out to send a clear message to the board. 6175 voters showed up to vote. The final numbers were Rosemarie Rung 4132 and Ginny Cadarette 1953. The Religious Right lost majority control of the board.

In 1997, Shelly Uscinski and Ginny Twardosky were up for re-election. They chose not to run. Six people ran for the seat. They included moderate candidates John Astill and Jim Flis, Right Wing candidates Rachel Dodsen and Tom Koenig, as well as Robert Siebert IV and write-in candidate Dave Nichols. For the third year in a row, the residents of Merrimack rejected the Religious Right. The final totals were John Astill 2631; Jim Flis 2489; Tom Koenig 1771; Rachel Dodson 1306; Robert Siebert IV 327; Dave Nichols 122. There are now NO members of the Religious Right on the board.

Prior to the 1998 election, John Astill stepped down for personal reasons. Carolyn Disco was appointed to fill in the empty seat but did not run for re-election in 1998. Brenda Grady did not seek re-election. Ken Coleman choose to run for a two year seat rather than the three year seat he was vacating. In total (2) three year seats and (1) two year seat were up for grabs. In the two year seat race it was Ken Coleman (2162) over Tom Koenig (1502) and write-in Michael Amarello (315). In the two year seat race it was Pat McGrath (2734) and Jack Balcom (2610) over Cheryl Gaudreau (1690). Voter turnout was in the mid 20 percent range. Tom Koenig and Cheryl Gaudreau's husband (Andrew) are aligned with Chris Ager who continues to be opposed to the current board. As the issues have returned to education the high voter turnout and landslide victories have diminished.

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The Board Under the Religious Right

Let's take a look at what happened after the Religious Right got control of the school board:

1. Board terminates current education goals. "Back to the basics" they say. Whatever that means. They don't say.

2. Planned Parenthood banned from the school.

3. Any discussion of sex or alternative life styles banned from Health class

4. 8/94: Board member Shelly Uscinski accused of being a member of the Christian Coalition. Shelly denies it. She then gives speech at National CC meeting. Discussion involves how they will slowly take over school boards. Shelly commended for her work in Merrimack. A local chapter of the CC gave Shelly paid membership in CC (2/95). Shelly accepted. The point here is not whether she is a member or not. The point is that she misled the public about her involvement with it.

5. 10/94: Proposed 15 Moment of Silence Public majority against. They say this is the first step in bringing religion into the school. School board says hogwash. Heated debate for weeks. Students demonstrate to voice their opinion against it. Several students suspended. Board passes moment of silence 3 to 2.

6. Board cancels plan for on-line access to National Geographic. Reasoning: Pornographic Information on the Internet. They did not bother to find out that this service is NOT on the Internet and no questionable material was available. [Eventually, I think access was granted.]

7. Board terminates membership in the New Hampshire School Board Association (NHSBA). The reason was that the association, comprised of school boards across the state, did not share many of the conservative views of the Merrimack School Board. Interestingly enough, in the March 1995 general election, the public voted to spend the money to stay in the association against the board's recommendation. The board was not pleased and Shelly questioned "where are my people"? However, the board did spend the money as the public requested, and are current members of the NHSBA.

8. 1/95: Board allows local clergyman to give speech why Creationism should be taught in science class. Public outraged. Board continues. Speech happens. Public outraged. Board Continues. Public opinion causing school board meetings to extend for many hours. Board Member solution: Limit public speaking to 15 minutes at the end of the meeting, and only if the meeting does not go beyond 10PM. Also, only voting aged Merrimack residents will be allowed to speak. Public groups stated they will bring lawsuits if the board accepts proposal. Clergyman has backed off but Board said they will bring issue back after elections. Board chairman asked for police protection at last board meeting. One of the minority members of the board spoke out against majority. A shouting match started. Then, Ager tabled the discussion. Heated debate continued . The meeting ended after one hour. Board majority leaves under police escort.

9. 7/95: Board proposes a ban on the portrayal of Homosexuality in a neutral or positive light. Heated public debate. This gains national attention. CBS News was there. Candlelight demonstration formed outside the outside the meeting where the vote would take place. The Board passes the proposal, 3 to 2 on August 14, 1995. It is written as follows:

Policy 6540--Prohibition of Alternate (sic) Lifestyle Instruction-"The Merrimack School District shall neither implement nor carry out any program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative. A program or activity, for purpose of this item, includes the distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services on school grounds, or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle".

10. Board proposes that any grant must be approved by them. Pass, 3 to 2. Why? Two reasons. First, so the story goes, Shelly's child comes home and says that they played "Simon Says" at school. Remember fun? Can't have that! [Read the Telegraph Editorial further on to learn more about what that was all about]. Reason #2 is because of the incident with Penny Culliton, a teacher at Mascenic Regional High School. She presented books in her classroom that portrayed homosexuality in a non-negative light. The books were purchased with grant money. The Board wanted to make sure that would never happen in Merrimack.

11. 12/95: Merrimack Teacher Named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year! A big round of applause for Deborah Woelflein! What an honor for Deborah, the school and the town. Too bad Shelly Uscinski spoils it by scorning Deborah for a statement she made. The editorial in The Telegraph on 12/1/95 summarized the situation beautifully. Follow me to read the editorial.

12. 01/96: New school budget approved by Board 4-1. Ginny said that there was probably waste, but that she wasn't going to oppose it. Hey, no whining please. If you don't like something, spend the time to investigate and check it out. Yes, we voted "back in" those items on the ballot last year. But those items weren't things that were wasteful. Those were things that didn't fit in the Religious Right agenda. The people of Merrimack saw right through that. Do the job you were elected to. If you find a legitimate item to cut, lets hear it.

13. 01/96: Students shall not speak without their parents present. The reasoning is that students have been very vocal about their displeasure on various board rulings, especially on the policy aginst portraying Homosexuality in a positive light. The board passed the ruling on the fly, without taking the time to discuss it off-line amongst all the members. Coleman and Grady opposed the measure.

02/9/96: Voters "just say no" to an all phonics program. The issue was non-binding, so it's not clear why we wasted about an hour discussing it at the yearly school district meeting. Many opinions were heard, and after the votes were counted it was clear that this is not something the people of Merrimack want.

02/15/96: A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Concord on 2/15/96 seeking to overturn Merrimack School Board Policy 6540, which prohibits the portrayal of Homosexuality in a neutral or positive light. The suit was filed by two local parents and four educators at Merrimack High School. They are being represented by several civil liberties and gay right groups, as well as the state branch of the National Education Association.
Chris Ager released the School Board response to the lawsuit. Ager said "This policy challenge (as reported in the press) is being mounted by gay rights advocacy groups from outside of our community and outside of New Hampshire, by ACLU and by the NEA. These groups have their own agenda, which they are trying to force down the throats of the people in our community and our children". Shelly Uscinski backed up Ager stating that "the defining issue for our community is whether we're going to give up local control to extremist agenda groups that want to force their agenda on our children."
Board Member Ken Coleman paints a different picture. "You manufacture a crisis ... you adopt a policy no one else has adopted, and then you sit there and cry that outside influences are coming in. That's like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer and then crying because your head hurts."

When the new board took over in 1996 their first order of business was to repeal policy 6540.

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The Christian Coalition Agenda

[from an article in the Boston Globe, by Andrew Merton, professor of English at the University of New Hampshire]

What does the Christian Coalition Stand For?

--> Creationism-as fact: the elevation of a single creation myth above all others with only a grudging acknowledgement of the evolution theory
--> Family Values-the biblical model, with no outside interference, please, no matter how dysfunctional the family
--> Prayer in schools
--> Taxpayer-funded (via vouchers) parochial education

What does the Christian Coalition Stand Against?

--> Abortion
--> Sex education
--> Homosexuality
--> Secular humanism - a value system based on the idea that humans, without biblical intervention, are capable of distinguishing good from evil, and acting accordingly
--> The acceptance or exploration of any of the above in public schools
--> The retention of any teacher or administrator who disagrees with these ideas
--> Public funding of public schools that persist in ignoring coalition teachings on these subjects

How many of these issues have been brought up in Merrimack over the past two years?

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The Religious Right & Homosexuality

These issues are not unique to Merrimack. It is a very organized approach that the Christian Coalition and other right wing religious groups are taking all over the country. They bring up topics that are very controversial. Homosexuality is popular because many people do not understand it. The majority of people do not want anything or anyone that would "promote" homosexuality in schools. That seems rather common sense-ish. But, the implication is that gay people seek to advance their sexuality through the recruitment of others and that they have the ability and power to convert people to their sexuality. This is just not true. Sexuality can not be promoted. People join the Religious Right out of fear, and many fear Homosexuality. It has been proven that homosexuality is not learned. But the Religious Right turns a deaf ear to facts. Gay people have a very difficult life to live. They would never choose to be the way they are, with the hatred some people have for them. But, they are the way they are. They are people! And, although you many not agree with the lifestyle, gay people have the right to live their life just as anyone else.

In the Nashua Telegraph on 9/13/95, Merrimack School Board Chairman Chris Ager, in a letter to the editor, explained why he turned down Vice Chairman Ken Coleman's amendment regarding the policy on Homosexuality. Chris's first statement is that "Ken's first amendment equated homo- and hetero-sexuality as equals". So there you have it in black and white (no pun intended).Discrimination. Speaking of Ken Coleman's amendment, it simply said that there would be no school program that would promote homosexuality. Currently there is no such program in the school. As I said before, there shouldn't be. But the policy the Merrimack school board voted for goes much further that that. There can be no portrayal of homosexuality in a neutral or positive light. That means that if a homosexual student turns to a school councilor for help, the councilor may not refer the student to a hotline or organization that portrays homosexuality in a neutral or positive light. That is downright scary. Some teachers are afraid that they might say the wrong thing. Well, lets hope that common sense will prevail and teachers will do what's best for the student. If that means they need help, turn them to a group that can help them. Worrying about a questionable School Board policy should be the last thing on their minds.

There are a few things I can't understand. Members of the Religious Right seem to consider Sex Education a very large threat. Why? They feel that teaching about sex in the school will undermine what parents are teaching their children. If parents have spent time with their children, have a good relationship with their children and discuss issues with their children, why do they feel that someone can take that all away by talking about it in school? And, it seems that parents ARE NOT discussing sex with their children. If parents isolate their children from what they perceive as "bad" influences, what will happen when the children grow up and go out on their own? Will they be able to cope with the world around them?

I was at a Merrimack Chamber of Commerce function last year and I spent some time talking to one of the students from Merrimack High School that was helping out. I asked what he thought of the School Board. He said "they just don't get it". I asked him what he meant, and he said that he thought that the most serious problem in the High School was drinking. He laughed that everyone was concentrating on things that just weren't problems. That brings up another point. When it was suggested that the school board have student representation, the board majority said no. When it was suggested that the student(s) not have any voting rights the answer was still no. Who better to help improve the school system than someone that is directly involved in it? When the School Board majority said that they felt that Brenda Grady was "the other side" because she was a teacher, their true feelings really came out. They don't give a hoot about the school or the children. They care about taking over school boards and telling us all what to do. Students and Teachers certainly should not have total control over what happens in the school system. But they have a unique perspective that nobody else has. They are instrumental in helping to improve the school system.

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Wake Up Call!

There is a positive side to these issues. The public is now much more aware of what is going on. Remember I mentioned that The Christian Coalition found they could have a much bigger impact at the local level in such groups as school boards and taxpayers associations? Well it worked, and, yes, they have had a large impact. What I didn't say is that once the public found out what was really happening, the Religious Right was thrown off the board at the end of their term.

Most people want to be led from the middle. Not the left. Not the right. And certainly not the FAR RIGHT! Learn what the Religious Righters came from. Learn what they want. Learn where they are going. Learn where they are trying to MAKE YOU GO. They are very Internet literate and extremely organized. Their original intent may have been good. But like many good things, they tend to get redirected to a very narrow focus of a very small group of people. I bet many of them don't know the true issues or the facts. They blindly go along thinking this will create a better life for their children. To those parents, step back and take a good look at what you are standing up for.

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What Can I Do?

Educate yourself! Learn the facts. Go to the Library. Read the Newspapers. Follow the links I provide below. Find some of your own. Talk to others. Find out where the Religious Right stands on issues. Find out where the ACLU stands. Where do other groups stand? What are they saying? What are they doing? Where are they going? And, after all of that, where do you, as an individual stand?

The next step is to become active in local groups you support, attend meetings, join committes, support your beliefs. Tell your Elected Officials how you feel. As the Christian Coalition has found out, it takes a very very small number of people to make a difference.

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Links for further information...

Latest happenings at nearby Mascenic School (courtesy of Jim Giddings).
Mother Jones Nov/Dec 95
Link to the ACLU
Link to People for the American Way
The MoJo Wire - Mother Jones Interactive
The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force
The Progressive Directory @igc

Christian Coalition
Yahoo - Society and Culture:Religion

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This page was last updated on 01/16/05.