School Committee violates Open Meeting Law; Cheveralls wants open dialogue

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

HARVARD — In late September, Worcester County Assistant District Attorney Patricia Smith informed School Committee Chairman Stuart Sklar that the committee was in fact in violation of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law during the process of evaluating the school superintendent.

” it is the opinion of the district attorney’s office that the School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law by conducting the significant portion of the evaluation process of the superintendent through a private interview process that excluded the public,” Smith wrote in the letter. “Furthermore, with the exception of the final composite evaluation, it appears no written records were kept of the private interviews so as to avoid public scrutiny. It is the opinion of the district attorney’s office that these actions constitute a blatant violation of the Open Meeting Law.”

No further action will be taken by the district attorney’s office because the executive session minutes were released to the public. Going forward, the School Committee has been instructed to conduct the superintendent’s evaluation process “in open session to preserve the public’s interest in monitoring the full performance evaluation and deliberation.”

“I want to know why this (investigation) was not discussed on the eve of discussing the superintendent’s contract extension,” School Committee member Keith Cheveralls demanded. “It’s a matter of trust and disclosure. I want to quote something Willie (Wickman) gave to me when I joined the committee, ‘The chair is the slave to the committee; not its master.’ I’m serving on the committee. I expect the chair to inform the committee of any investigations.”

Sklar rebutted by stating that the correspondence between himself and Smith was an administrative action that he dealt with.

Virginia Justicz said the process was put into place to try and protect the anonymity of those involved with the evaluation process, since they are not public officials.

“I think, going forward, we need to re-evaluate that process,” she said.

Committee member Patty Wenger said that since her name was in the correspondence, she should have been informed of the investigation.

“I find it very odd that the School Committee couldn’t let me know about this,” she said. “I didn’t know there was an investigation and if you want the School Committee to work together, this is not the way to do it.”

Cheveralls added there had been three School Committee meetings between the first correspondence from Smith and when the issue was resolved.

“If this information had been given to the School Committee in their packet, it might have changed the discussion (of the superintendent’s contract extension),” he said. “It’s not the chair’s responsibility to make those decisions.”

Sklar told Cheveralls he didn’t feel the situation would have changed Cheveralls’ mind because he was against the extension to begin with.

“Here’s the thing, Keith,” Sklar said. “I serve the committee. If you feel I don’t do that, remove me.”

Cheveralls asked Sklar if that statement was a motion, to which Sklar replied, “I don’t put forward motions.”

Cheveralls said the investigation from the district attorney’s office is not a routine one and feels the committee has taken a step backward.

“I feel let down here,” he said. “After working together for the past six months I feel this was uncalled for.”

Wickman disagreed with her colleague and said she supports Sklar as chairman.

Cheveralls suggested they have someone from the district attorney’s office come to Harvard and conduct a seminar for all town boards on Open Meeting Laws.

Sklar said in speaking to the school department’s legal counsel, he believes the Open Meeting Law varies from county to county.

“We should have state guidelines, not county for county,” he said.

The Open Meeting Law itself does in fact include all governmental entities at the state, county and local levels. It is up to the district attorney to enforce the law.