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N.H. school boards face new efforts to force votes over COVID-19 mitigation measures


New Hampshire school boards are receiving petitions to hold a special meeting about mask mandates, potentially paving the way for another battle over masks in schools.

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The petitions ask for a meeting and vote on whether to make facial coverings optional for students, employees, and visitors.

Most petitions come from a blueprint by The Government Integrity Project, a conservative non-profit in Windham that launched in May. Its Facebook page says it’s committed to government accountability, parental rights, and “God given rights, liberties, and American way of life.”

The petitions cite RSA 197:2 and RSA 195:13, laws requiring a school district to hold a meeting if requested by at least 50 voters in an individual district or five percent of voters in a cooperative district.

Government Integrity Project cofounder Tom Murray says they’re acting as the “informational people” to give residents a mechanism to overrule mask mandates and hold elected officials accountable. And the idea has spread quickly.

The New Hampshire School Boards Association estimates that a few dozen petitions have been submitted so far. Only registered voters of a town would be allowed to vote in such a meeting, but statewide groups fighting COVID-mitigation measures (including Reopen NH) are encouraging others to show up at school board meetings this week in support of petitioners.

ReopenNH and other groups are encouraging people to go to meetings to support petitioners against mask mandates.
Reopen NH
ReopenNH and other groups are encouraging people to go to meetings to support petitioners against mask mandates.

Some school boards are denying the special meetings on legal grounds.

Dover School Board denied petitioners’ request on Monday night, saying that RSA 197 only governs school boards that have annual meetings to vote on their budget, not school boards like Dover’s that operate under city charter.

Other school attorneys say New Hampshire case law suggests that voters do not have the authority to overrule school boards over certain policy issues. So even if special meetings go forward and residents vote to make masks optional, their vote would be non-binding, attorneys say.

“People are really looking for solutions and for ways to push back against school boards and they've fallen upon this provision through the law,” says Jim O'Shaughnessy, a lawyer representing about 15 districts that have received petitions. “I think they mistakenly believe it's a solution, and it's not.”

The New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office says it is fielding questions about the RSA, but it recommends that people seek legal advice to understand what it can accomplish when it comes to certain school policies. If not resolved at a district level, some suspect it will be resolved in Superior Court through a lawsuit.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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