By Robin Read (former State Rep. from Portsmouth)
The normally sensible Portsmouth School Board didn't enhance its reputation in its discussions last month on former Sen. John Edwards' campaign's request to rent Little Harbour School to formally announce his candidacy for president.
And the Herald was negligent in not reporting further on the meeting, the potential implications of the board's action on future similar requests, and the comments of board members and city officials.
To its credit, the board approved the campaign's somewhat last-minute request to rent the school for the event. But the board also voted to require that future requests from candidates be submitted at least 30 days in advance. Asking a presidential campaign to know 30 days ahead when and where it wants to hold an event is like parents attempting to require a teenage son or daughter to tell them in July their plans for New Year's Eve. For a variety of reasons campaigns are basically incapable of making decisions that far in advance, particularly in the last month or two before an election. The policy could seriously limit opportunities for Portsmouth students and residents to see and hear candidates and participate in the democratic process.
Also, Foster's Daily Democrat reported that at the meeting City Attorney Sullivan said that allowing one political group to rent the school would require the board to rent to other groups like the KKK. This is no reason to deny candidates or someone representing them access to public buildings. (Should the city have prohibited First Lady Laura Bush from reading to children at the Portsmouth library during the 2004 campaign on the chance that the spouse of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon might ask permission to do the same?). A policy can be developed to handle such contingencies. In addition, board member Nancy Clayburgh was quoted as saying, "What if you get some kind of radical group that wants to come in next week?" Who's going to define what groups are "radical" and by what criteria?
The Herald reported that Board Chairman LePage said that this is the first time a Portsmouth school has been "rented for such a purpose." This may be true if he's speaking of a candidate using a local school to formally announce his candidacy. But, fortunately, Portsmouth schools have been venues for presidential campaign events in the past. A few examples: President Carter held a political event at Portsmouth High School in 1979 at the start of the 1980 presidential primary campaign. Candidate Jesse Jackson spoke at events at Portsmouth schools before the 1984 and 1988 primaries. In 1988 Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign even rented the Portsmouth Middle School as headquarters for a weekend door-to-door canvass. Presidential candidate Bill Bradley hosted a forum in 1999 at Little Harbour School with students, teachers, and school administrators.
Ironically, on Dec. 26, a few days after the School Board meeting, the Herald published a long, complimentary Associated Press article on how the administration, faculty, and students at Concord High School, presumably with the consent of the Concord School Board, have been actively recruiting candidates for president to come to the school since 1988. Two have appeared at forums at the school in the last few months. In 2004, four presidential candidates visited Winnacunnet High School and Gen. Wesley Clark visited Somersworth High.
New Hampshire schools have hosted presidential campaign events since the first modern New Hampshire presidential primary more than 50 years ago without, to my knowledge, any serious problems with the KKK or any other group. And, thankfully, candidates for other local, state and national offices often visit our schools.
Finally, the Herald should report on the opinions of other Portsmouth residents, educators, legal experts, and public officials on this important issue.
The School Board is obviously justified in requiring candidates to pay rent up front, pay for police, clean-up, etc. (Also, such rentals do provide some much-needed income to the school system). Board member Clayburgh was correct to say, according to the Herald, that, "It could be very exciting to have a potential president make his announcement at one of our schools."
To increase the chances of that happening the 30-day advance notice policy should be re-examined. The board also could review the policies of Concord and other districts before finalizing its policy on candidate events at schools. And it should go on record as encouraging candidates for president and other offices to hold forums and other events in our schools, not discourage them.