HARVARD — After a great deal of debate, voters passed an article calling for the censure of the Harvard School Committee.
Article 14 of the Oct. 10 Special Town Meeting warrant, a citizen’s petition, reads, in part, “To see if the Town will vote to approve a motion of censure of the Harvard School Committee for actions undertaken while the District Administration is under review by state regulatory agencies for alleged ethics violations and alleged misuse of scarce public funds.”
The three actions cited are extending the superintendent’s contract, providing an “unwarranted positive” review of his performance and “summarily dismissing” irregularities noted in the town’s external financial audit. The petitioners concluded the actions “compromise the integrity of Harvard’s precious public schools ”
As people lined up at the mic to speak on the issue, town moderator David “Doc” Westerling set the rules. Each speaker was allowed five minutes, and the total discussion time allowed was one hour and 15 minutes.
Referring to an alleged violation of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) confidentiality by the school superintendent, resident B.J. Pessia said, “There are no details on the CORI investigation (in the censure article). I’m here to tell you, there is one.”
It has been said that the superintendent leaked information — in an informal setting — about the outcome of a criminal record check on an individual who is not a school employee.
Also, if teachers are reluctant to speak out about the administration, said Pessia, it’s not because everyone’s happy.
“We need a confidential survey to see how the teachers really feel,” she said.
Resident William Salter raised the issue of two checks paid in special education funds to a former School Committee member to send his child to a private preparatory school that doesn’t offer special education services.
“Let’s get a few things clear the payment process looks bad,” he said.
Citing another censure item, Salter said, “I feel the School Committee shouldn’t have extended the (superintendent’s) contract at that time.”
It was a “reasonable mistake” on the committee’s part, he said, but it hasn’t handled this “divisive” process very well.
Salter said he favors “cutting them some slack” and said the citizen’s petition has fostered an “unproductive climate” that makes it “even harder” to discuss painful issues.
“Will this censure make the process better or worse?” he asked. “I’m worried about the tone it sets for the town.”
The town is “blessed with citizen” volunteers, said Christopher Ashley, of Ayer Road, but they must meet certain standards and set an example for children in the community. He made a motion for a paper ballot.
Keith Cheveralls backed the motion. As one of the organizers of the citizen’s petition, he said some of the 248 individuals who signed it had expressed concerns about being identified.
Fred Hinchliffe agreed. Those fearful of voting their “mind and conscience” in public can do so by “secret ballot,” he said.
“We’re calling it a counted ballot,” said Westerling.
A Poor Farm Road resident disputed the notion that the ballot was necessary.
“I can’t stay ” he said. “People should have the courage to vote in the open.”
The motion passed.
The hall was cleared, and voters checked in all over again to cast ballots. Those ballots were counted as the meeting moved on via a subsequent motion to suspend town meeting rules for the purpose. The article passed with 215 in favor and 117 opposed.