School phone alert system used to urge override voting

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HARVARD — Two days before voters passed a $200,000 override at a special town election, residents linked to the “Connect Ed” phone-alert system received a call that some people said is unethical and may be illegal as well. Others, however, have said the call — initiated by School Committee Chairman Suart Sklar — was just a reminder to vote.

Keith Cheveralls, who serves on the School Committee, introduced the issue at the June 17 Board of Selectmen meeting, but he said he was “speaking as a resident” and not as a school board member.

The Connect Ed system is an electronic update of the “telephone tree” concept. It can generate simultaneous calls to hundreds of destinations, both in and out of town, sending recorded messages to school staff and parents on its list. It’s intended to quickly disseminate information about school closings, snow days and emergency situations, Cheveralls said. The superintendent’s office has jurisdiction over the system, he said.

On June 9 at 6:40 p.m., people on the Connect Ed list received a recorded message from Sklar, reminding them of the upcoming election date and went on to state that a “No vote” on the override would mean “added teacher cuts at HES and Bromfield,” Cheveralls said. The message also said it was “brought to you” by the PTO and Hazel Real Estate, he said.

Selectman Peter Warren said the message was broadcast again on election night.

The message may have run afoul of Massachusetts law, Cheveralls said. But legal or not, he said its “morally and ethically wrong” to have used the Connect Ed system for a political purpose. He said there’s been no “public debate” about the matter at a School Committee meeting, but he has asked to have it placed on the June 23 agenda.

Resident Maria Kaufmann said if the information Skar relayed in the message is “factually accurate,” she can’t see what the fuss is about. “I’m thankful,” she said.

As for using the phone line for the purpose, Kaufmann said the system is supported by a private firm and the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) and she believes the School Committee has the right to advocate for a cause. In her view, the call was a needed nudge to “get out and vote” and people shouldn’t be upset about it.

But PTO member Beth Drummey said the PTO supports the system “for emergencies only” and the law does not allow the nonprofit organization to fund political positions. “We did not condone this message,” she said.

Town administrator Timothy Bragan said the legal issue rests on advocacy for a position and that some town resources are used to fund the phone line.

The call in question was “fine until the ‘no vote’ part,” Bragan said. “That’s where the message went awry.” And he confirmed that people are concerned. “I’ve received five calls,” he said.

Chairman Leo Blair said the controversy isn’t about reminding people to vote but in telling them how to vote. “That’s the violation, if there is one,” he said.

Town counsel Mark Lanza said that, unlike town meeting warrant articles, public resources cannot be used to influence the outcome of an election or ballot question. But there are exceptions. “The content of the message is key,” he said.

Selectman Timothy Clark asked if Cheverall’s quote was the “full content” of the message. Told it was not, he said that absent “full disclosure this isn’t the time to talk about it.”

Bragan said he has a copy of the tape and has researched the issue. After further reviewing the data with others, the matter may be referred to the state office for campaign and political resources for investigation, he said.