HARVARD — A week after he approached the Board of Selectmen about the message sent out over the “Connect-Ed” phone alert system, Keith Cheveralls brought the same issue up at the School Committee meeting.
Superintendent Thomas Jefferson explained the most common uses of the system and stated that he, Special Education Director Charles Horn, the principals of both the Bromfield and Harvard Elementary Schools and School Committee Chairman Stuart Sklar, all have access codes to the system in order to leave messages.
After hearing the brief explanation from Jefferson, Cheveralls made it clear he was “speaking as a resident” at the June 17 Board of Selectmen meeting and asked for the topic to be added to the June 23 School Committee agenda.
“I asked for (Connect-Ed) to be added to the agenda to stimulate open and honest debate,” Cheveralls said.
The message, recorded by Sklar, reminded residents about the June 11 special town election and that a “no vote” on the override would mean “added teacher cuts at HES and Bromfield,” Cheveralls said.
“We need to discuss what is good practice and legally permissible,” Cheveralls told his colleagues.
Virginia Justicz said she thought the language of the recorded message was a gray area and Sklar was not telling the residents how to vote.
“I feel like until we hear something (from a legal standpoint), there’s nothing for us to act on,” she said.
Sklar asked Cheveralls why he would bring the situation to the Board of Selectmen first when he sits on the School Committee.
“I thought it was a very neutral statement,” Sklar explained. “I’m waiting to hear what the lawyers said. I was trying to get people to vote and with all that hard work, we only got a third of the vote.”
Willie Wickman took the opportunity to question Cheveralls’ timing of the issue.
“The call went out on June 8,” she said. “The School Committee met on June 9. Why wouldn’t you bring it up then?”
Cheveralls said he hadn’t been contacted by the community at that point and since then there has been an “outcry” over how the phone alert system was used.
“I’ve heard many complaints relative to teacher cuts,” he said. “This committee agreed not to refer to teacher cuts.”
Cheveralls was met with objections from his colleagues over that statement because they felt that information was not correct and that the committee had agreed not to name the specific positions but there would be cuts of full-time teachers if the override had not passed.
“Can we deal with the real situation here?” Cheveralls asked. “I went to Tom and Stu and neither of them had the courtesy to come back to me with a solution.”
Wickman told Cheveralls she thought it was disturbing that he didn’t have the courtesy to come to the board he sits on to discuss the situation before bringing it up at the selectmen’s meeting.
After explaining “Connect-Ed” is a flat fee of $3,500 whether one call or 1,000 calls are made, Sklar added the committee agreed the role of communicating with the voters in town was solely the chairman’s responsibility.
“I advocated for people to vote,” Sklar said. “If that’s a crime, I’m guilty.”
As committee member Patty Wenger began speaking about the legality of the system, she was cut off by Sklar.
“Where’s your legal degree from?” he asked.
That statement brought an outcry from the residents in attendance, leading to one man to stand up and begin speaking out of turn.
“I find this an embarrassment to my community,” he said. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. I’m leaving because this is an embarrassment.”
After the man left, other residents tried to speak but Sklar wouldn’t let them.
“I told you at the beginning of the meeting that I was not allowing public comment in the meeting,” Sklar said. “I gave you the opportunity to express your concerns at the beginning of the meeting.”
The residents would have to wait to air their concerns over the use of the alert phone system until the committee’s next meeting, on July 7.
Cheveralls made a motion to have the committee put “formal policy and procedures” in place regarding the phone alert system, which Wenger seconded before the discussion continued.
“I feel like before we sit down and do procedures, we have to find out what the result of this issue is,” Justicz said. “It seems a bit reactionary to me.”
Cheveralls tried to “move the question” but Sklar said he didn’t think the discussion was done at that point. When Cheveralls again tried to move the question, Selectman Timothy Clark spoke up from the audience stating that in order to move the question it had to be seconded.
After none of the other committee members seconded Cheveralls attempt to move the question, Wenger added she felt the system needs to be reevaluated and should be used properly in the future.
A vote was finally taken on Cheveralls motion, which failed 2-3 with Sklar, Justicz and Wickman opposed.