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School Committee admits to open meeting failures

Date: 1/7/2016

LONGMEADOW – School Committee Chair Janet Robinson said a violation of Open Meeting Law by the Preliminary Superintendent Search Subcommittee was not intentional, but was also avoidable, during the committee’s Jan. 4 meeting.

Robinson said the search subcommittee meetings on Dec. 2 and 12, 2015 were not posted with the town clerk in accordance with the Open Meeting Law.

“The Open Meeting Law states, at a minimum, that all meetings of a committee should be posted 48 hours prior to their occurrence with an agenda of those topics reasonably anticipated to be discussed by the chairperson, including whether there will be an executive session and the purpose of the session,” she noted. “This did not occur.”

She continued, “The reason it did not occur is simple. There was an error made by School Department staff in ensuring that these meetings were posted. There was no malicious intent in the lack of posting these two meetings, but rather simple human error. In fact, the dates of theses two meetings were posted in updates to the community on the district website, and school wide emails, as early as Nov. 9, [2015], a full month in advance. The failure to post these meetings was a mistake and the person responsible has taken full responsibility for this.”

Robinson stated that both meetings took place in public and the correct procedure to enter executive session was followed.

The Open Meeting Law violation allegation was brought to the committee and the public’s attention by resident Scott Foster, a Springfield-based attorney and the son of Select Board Chair Richard Foster, during the week prior.

Foster stated on his Facebook account the violations were “so pervasive and so blatant, they can hardly be seen as anything but intentional.”

He added, “Although each [meeting] was held in executive session, actual deliberation of the candidates occurred at each meeting. Such deliberation must occur in open session. These violations are not technical but rather highlight a process run amok. The School Committee cannot argue ignorance since they have spent in excess of $100,000 on their Boston-based attorneys so far this year and amended the process at least once to comply with the open meeting law.”

The School Committee voted to hire Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea during its Dec. 22, 2015 meeting. Wolf Swamp Elementary School Principal Neil Gile was also a finalist for the position.

Foster called for the superintendent search process to be restarted – a  position that School Committee member Michelle Grodsky backed during the meeting.

“I fully support Attorney Foster’s concerns,” Grodsky said. “If we have not followed the open meeting laws in our superintendent hiring process, then we need to go back to the point where the law was broken and begin the process again. We owe it to our community, our teachers, our superintendent, and most importantly, our children.”

Foster said in his Facebook post, in which he tagged state Sen. Eric Lesser, state Rep. Brian Ashe, and School Committee member Russell Dupere, that he has nothing but praise for O’Shea in regards to his character and his supporters.

“The corrected process may lead to the same result, at which time you will have my full support,” Foster explained. “Until then, you have an opportunity to begin providing leadership and setting the right tone.”

Robinson said during the meeting the committee takes the violation seriously and has been “diligently working with our legal counsel to determine the best way to fix this infraction.”

She added, “We fully intend to work with the Attorney General to ensure that this action is corrected.”

The committee also plans to conduct training for committee members and central office staff regarding the requirements of the law, Robinson said.  

Dupere said the committee could have addressed the issue in more detail during the Jan. 4 meeting.

“I think we’re better off just getting this resolved,” he told Robinson. “I’m glad that parts of your statement deal with that.”

Robinson said at this time the committee does not have all of the information to discuss the detailed steps to be taken to address the violation as well as the timeline for those steps taking place.

The committee anticipates addressing the violation in more detail during its Jan. 11 meeting.