HARVARD — The article on the Special Town Meeting (STM) warrant that called to censure the School Committee sparked a good deal of discussion, with cases made for and against it.
Vice Chairman Will Verbits spoke on behalf of the School Committee.
Presenting the other side of the issue was resident Ron Ricci, a key proponent of the citizen’s petition that garnered nearly 250 signatures to place the article on the warrant. Verbits and Ricci read prepared statements at the Oct. 10 STM.
The article passed on a paper ballot vote 215 to 117.
“One of the most important functions of local government is to provide a good public education for our children,” said Ricci. “Each of us owns that responsibility.”
Harvard’s system is managed by the School Committee, he said. When it “fails to provide the required leadership and judgment to effectively manage our school system, we must not be silent.”
When the committee shirks its duties, he said, people should speak out. Thus the motion of censure, which he said is “the most powerful way” to do that.
Ricci cited reports of $30,000 paid directly to a former committee member to send a child “to an exclusive private school.” The checks were listed as special education expenditures, but the private school the child attended, Cushing Academy, doesn’t offer special education services.
The payments were also made “after the fact and without regard for established procedures,” he said.
Further, he noted an incident of alleged workplace harassment and the demotion of a school employee and town resident unfairly blamed for “spilling the beans.”
Despite a public denial of these allegations, Ricci said a new report has surfaced about the superintendent’s alleged “unauthorized release” of a parent’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) background check.
“Such a release can carry fines and criminal penalties,” he said.
Reports such as these “set the stage” for the petition, he said.
Though the superintendent’s actions are underscored in the statement, it’s the School Committee in the spotlight.
“(It’s) responsible for supervising the superintendent and protecting the town from liabilities associated with his actions,” said Ricci.
Key questions that must be answered include what the committee did or didn’t do “given the substantial and credible indications of possible wrongdoing and (the administration’s) poor management practices ” he said.
Instead of acknowledging citizens’ concerns and accepting its responsibility in these matters, he said the School Committee has behaved as if “nothing is wrong. There has (been) and continues to be a pattern of denial ”
Faced with “outrage” over the questionable special education expenditure, Ricci said a committee member called the $30,000 “peanuts” in a $10 million budget.
“Many of us in this auditorium volunteer in the community,” he said. The School Committee is “one of the most demanding” volunteer jobs on the roster, he said, and at times one of the least appreciated.
“No one can take that away ” he said, but that’s no reason to ignore the failure of this committee to manage its employee and thus protect the town.
The petition had already raised awareness, said Ricci, noting “at least a few” committee members who are finally paying attention to the community’s concerns about its performance.
“Passing this motion will go a long way” toward letting committee members know the voters of Harvard expect them to honorably uphold the duties they are charged with, he said.