New-look school board shapes up in Merrimack

By PATRICK MEIGHAN, Telegraph Staff
Published: Tuesday, Apr. 18, 2006

MERRIMACK – As Emily Coburn was being named new chairwoman of the school board Monday, a former chairman sat in the audience and watched.

During the public participation segment near the end of the meeting, that former chairman, Chris Ager, walked up to the microphone and congratulated Coburn and the newly elected board members, Jennifer Thornton and Jody Vaillancourt.

Not present at the meeting was the ousted chairman, Ken Coleman, who lost his bid for re-election last week.

Coleman had served for 14 years on the board, but not consecutively. He lost a race by three votes in 1994, after which Ager replaced him as chairman when the board was dominated by conservatives and members of the Christian Right.

However, voters returned Coleman to the board the following year, and he served as chairman from 1996 until last week, when he finished last in the race for two board seats.

Ager had not held office in Merrimack since stepping down from the board in 1996. Last week, however, he was elected to the budget committee that will oversee school spending.

On Monday, the other four board members voted to make Coburn chairwoman, while she abstained. Member Rose Robertson-Smith retained her position as vice chairwoman also by a 4-0-1 vote.

With 14-year board veteran Coleman gone, leadership now rests with Coburn and Robertson-Smith, who each has served on the school board for two years.

Changes with the board makeup also mean that Thornton, co-founder of an anti-tax group, joins conservative member George Markwell, elected to the board last year.

During Monday’s meeting, Markwell flexed that new conservative muscle by referring to two opinion pieces that criticized public education spending.

One was an editorial published April 6 in the Union Leader of Manchester, which noted that while Vermont spends $2,268 more per pupil than New Hampshire, students in this state scored the same or better in national math and reading tests.

The other was by conservative columnist and ABC news commentator John Stossel, who said that American public schools were squandering money.

Markwell asked Coburn to put a board discussion of both articles on the agenda for its next meeting.

Mulling Markwell’s request, Coburn said having the board discuss newspaper opinion pieces at a meeting would be “unprecedented.”

Coburn said she understood Markwell’s concern about school spending, but said a wiser use of the board’s time would be to have a forum on school funding and examine statistics from a wider range of sources, not a single newspaper article.

Markwell then encouraged residents in the audience and watching the meeting at home on cable TV to read the articles and consider the points they made.

During public comments, resident Tina DeMember urged the board not to jump into spending cuts, but to consider school funding issues carefully over time.

“These types of decisions can’t be made in one or two meetings,” said DeMember, who has been active on various parent committees during recent years.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or