HARVARD -- The Harvard School Committee Monday meeting was punctuated at several points by Chairman Keith Cheveralls illustrating subject areas that he says, as of Thursday, would have had to be deferred to later meetings.
That's because yesterday, July 1, the state's new Open Meeting Law went into effect. The law governs how and when public bodies convene publicly (open session) and privately (executive session).
Among the law's changes is that agendas for meetings are to be posted at least 48 hours in advance of a public meeting (not including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays) except in the event of emergencies. Notices must continue to contain the date, time and place of the meeting.
Newly added, however, is a requirement that the posting include an agenda of topics the chairman "reasonably anticipates will be discussed at the meeting" with "enough specificity so that the public will understand what will be discussed," according to the attorney general's office, which takes over jurisdiction for municipal Open Meeting Law issues from the district attorney's office.
Cheveralls urged his peers to get up to speed on the changes, as they apply equally to subcommittees as well as the full School Committee, saying, "it is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with the Open Meeting Law."
Cheveralls will handle agenda postings and fulfilling requests for meeting minutes, which now must contain documents relied upon during public-body deliberations.
Cheveralls said some requirements will be "clearly burdensome" to himself and the School Department staff, but that the "end result will be absolute transparency." The committee had already begun posting and broadcasting meeting agendas well in advance of the law's change, he noted. The PTO has also fulfilled that function via its e-mail lists.
The law "constrains what we can do on an ad hoc basis," Cheveralls said, adding that "the public has a right to know what will be discussed to the extent the chair can (anticipate them), in a degree of detail."
Citing as example of what he says he can no longer do, Cheveralls updated the committee on his progress with the Board of Health on tracking and testing for mold spores in the kindergarten wing of the elementary school, a problem that's reportedly remained in check for years now. An effort is afoot to drop from four times a year to bi-annual testing to save approximately $3,5000.
The topic was not posted on the committee's agenda for that meeting.
"I don't think we need to be totally paranoiac about this," Cheveralls said, but added that the point of the Open Meeting Law is that a citizen "might want to be here to hear what we're saying."
Personnel, pay, hires
Another late entry onto the agenda was a request by Superintendent Thomas Jefferson for clarity on the salary maximum he can offer candidates when hiring an interim principal for Hildreth Elementary School. This was the last formal week on the job for Mary Beth Banios who leaves to become the assistant superintendent of schools in Maynard.
A salary range is "the key factor" when talking with finalists, Jefferson said, "It's good for me to have a ballpark figure in terms of negotiations."
Cheveralls asked what will happen in terms of salary if the interim hire comes from in-house. "Let me take that question under advisement," Jefferson said, "There's a domino effect... if you hire somebody, you need to hire somebody someplace else."
Committee member Piali De advised that the "salary cannot exceed what's in our budget... if you can get a retired person that can save money, that would be preferable," she said before quickly clarifying "we're seeking quality, not cost savings."
A name should be forthcoming for the committee's next meeting on July 12, but Jefferson said a deal with an interim will be done by July 4 "in spirit."
In other personnel moves:
* Bromfield will welcome a new media specialist in the fall when Barbara Shea joins the middle/high school. Shea was the librarian at the Kennedy School in Somerville.
* Catherine Polis will become a special-education leader at the Bromfield School. Polis hails from the Franklin public school system.
* Julie Cook has tendered her letter of resignation as art teacher at the Bromfield School. Cook will assume similar duties in the Westford school district.
* And Jefferson referenced a "potential HES resignation" at the grade school on which he didn't elaborate pending the person's contract being approved in a new school system.
A playground subcommittee of the Hildreth Elementary School Council continues to work toward replacing the aged 22-year old playground behind the grade school. Council member Mary Traphagen said subcommittees are addressing funding, vendor selection and site selection. Site selection has proven to be the linchpin to the rest.
A loose goal is to have a new playground constructed in the summer of 2011. There were many competing theories on where to find space for the playground. Using space behind the Bromfield House administration offices proved to be potentially too costly and difficult for handicapped accessibility.
Another notion was to expand the back parking lot into the woods across Fairbanks Street behind the school to give more space for the current playground location. That, too, was nixed because of potential sewer line issues, cost and wetlands concerns.
Biting into some of the land of the elementary school's playing fields would be disruptive to "a lot of stakeholders" like the Harvard Athletic Association, Parks and Recreations programming, as well as the school's physical education teacher.
"They were very reluctant to even go forward with talking about this idea -- so even talking about it was progress, which we did," Traphagen said. Still the fields are the only under-11 soccer fields available and issues arose as to game interruption and safety should youth venture onto the neighboring fields during games.
"We kept coming back to the current site," Traphagen said.
One notion is to install three sides of walls four-feet high around the present playground space, and increase the play space by using an 18-by-9 foot swath of space right up against the exterior wall of the school's gymnasium. The added space would provide a 200-child maximum capacity for the playground.
As the location abuts a paved path for truck deliveries to the cafeteria, a gate is proposed to raise driver awareness which would be manually lifted and opened before a driver backed up down the path.
A 2-foot high leaning retaining wall that drops from the playground to the parking lot is scheduled to be replaced this summer.
Another change may be a replacement structure that goes up three tiers, said Deb Barton, a fellow Council member. The hope is to not alter the footprint of the present play structures too much.
Cheveralls said he was pleased with the report and asked the council to nail down more hard data and return in the fall.
"From a conceptual standpoint, the location depends on square footage," he said, which will "ultimately drive what you can put in the square footage."
Ballpark figures are a project in the $120,000 to $130,000 range. Funding mechanisms aren't settled, but may blend use of the school-controlled Shaw Trust account, Devens contract income, a town request for assistance and a potential PTO fundraising campaign.
"This is something that people have been waiting for a while," Traphagen said, "Now I think people are really ready for it."
In other business:
* To accommodate two new choice registrations for kindergarten next year, Jefferson recommended shifting two half-day students from the one half-day class to the three full-day classes. With the shift, the head count will provide three full-day classes of 15 students each and the one half-day class with 17 students. It was approved unanimously.
* Budget Director Lorraine Leonard reported the budget appears balanced as the schools prepare to shut the books on fiscal 2010, which occurs by the end of July 15. While she sees a $20,000 deficit at this time, it doesn't take into account all the unused funds sitting in accounts when the books close.
* The committee voted unanimously and symbolically to voice its ongoing support for the contract in place to educate Devens children. Cancellation requires two years notice by either MassDevelopment or the town of Harvard. The contracts are set up to automatically renew. There's two years left on the five-year Bromfield contract and one year left on the Hildreth Elementary School three-year contract. Devens Educational Advisory Committee (DEAC) member and adjunct member of the School Committee Maureen Babcock said, "I'm glad it's being done consciously," as it is a "good practice to revisit it annually."