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Staff Writer

HARVARD — The School Committee has re-voted the contract extension for Superintendent Thomas Jefferson after being found in violation of the Open Meeting Law (OML).

“Generally, Open Meeting Law violations are remedied by holding an open meeting,” Chairman Stu Sklar said at the Dec. 8 meeting. “This is our first meeting since we received the letter (from the Worcester County District Attorney’s Office on Nov. 24).”

The DA had again found the committee in violation of the OML, after investigating an “informal coffee” held at Vice Chairman Virginia Justicz’s home on Sept. 18.

In the letter, dated Nov. 24, Assistant District Attorney David Tiberii cited five violations of the OML during the “informal coffee,” which was attended by Sklar and committee member Patty Wenger, thus bringing together a quorum of the five-member School Committee.

Sklar had stated in the commentary portion of the Nov. 10 School Committee meeting that the committee did not violate the OML because the committee members did not speak to each other.

The five violations are: Conducting a meeting that was not open to the public, having a quorum of members meeting privately to discuss and deliberate on a pending matter, using a social meeting to circumvent the spirit and provisions of the OML, failing to give public notice as required by the OML, and failing to maintain accurate records of the meeting as required by the OML.

“It is the opinion of the district attorney that these actions constitute flagrant and egregious violation of the Open Meeting Law,” Tiberii wrote.

Sklar did not agree with Tiberii.

“I object to Mr. Tiberii’s verbiage,” Sklar said. “But it’s not worth my time to fight him on it. This law is inconsistent from county to county. I find it deeply disturbing that they don’t tell me who filed it and what the complaint is. I think the DA is taking the easy way out. This committee works very hard to comply with the Open Meeting Law.”

Sklar may have said as much in public to his colleagues, but on Dec. 7 he wrote other feelings at the bottom of a letter to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) in response to “Time for another Tea Party.”

“… We can work on fixing another waste of time, or political harassment tool — the Open Meeting Law. More on that in another post,” he wrote.

Tiberii listed four remedies for the violations: The School Committee rescind its action taken at the Sept. 22 meeting regarding the extension of Jefferson’s contract; any further actions in that regard must be in compliance with the provisions of the Open Meeting Law; the Sept. 18 “informal coffee” must be treated as a School Committee meeting and its activities must be reduced to written minutes, including Justicz’s e-mail invitation; and the minutes are to be added to the official public records of the School Committee.

School attorney Naomi Stonberg said she didn’t feel the vote taken at the Sept. 22 school committee meeting to extend Jefferson’s contract should be rescinded.

“Attorney Tiberii directed the committee to rescind its vote to rollover Dr. Jefferson’s contract,” she wrote. “This vote was taken after the Sept. 18 coffee, was preceded by a discussion in open session and was taken at the open meeting. As we discussed, an Open Meeting Law violation can be cured by a deliberation and a vote in open session. Therefore, in my judgment, the vote on the rollover is a valid vote. Under the Open Meeting Law, I see no legal basis for rescinding the vote. However, in order to avoid costly litigation, my suggestion would be to take another vote confirming the Sept. 22 vote and also referring the public to both the executive and open meeting minutes of the Sept. 22 meeting.”

Committee member Keith Cheveralls requested the committee get a second opinion regarding the legal advice but Sklar said he trusts Stonberg’s judgment.

“In point of fact, when the letter first came we explained that we did (the vote) in open meeting and the letter was amended by the district attorney,” he said. “But then a member of a press organization called and badgered the district attorney, giving them a hard time and the amendment was rescinded.”

Cheveralls questioned why the district attorney would change his mind once and then change it back again to the original statement.

“Naomi spoke to him and he agreed it was remedied,” Sklar said. “Then two hours later, after the press harassed him, it was retracted.”

Cheveralls made a motion that included five remedies: The School Committee immediately comply with all four stipulations specifically enumerated in the district attorney’s letter of Nov. 24; a letter of compliance and assurance of future compliance should be sent to the district attorney with a copy to town counsel, town administrator and Board of Selectmen and made publicly available at Town Hall as well as the Public Library; and the matter of extending the superintendent’s contract (from 2010 to 2011) must be taken up by the School Committee at its first business meeting after May 15, 2009.

He also proposed requiring a performance review subcommittee of the School Committee be convened in January 2009 to investigate and advise on options, legal requirements and best practices for evaluative procedures of superintendents, and that the district attorney be requested to provide an Open Meeting Law workshop.

The motion was not seconded and Sklar said he found Cheverall’s view “a cheap political stunt to push his agenda to wait on the contract extension.”

Committee member Willie Wickman made a motion to re-vote the Sept. 22 vote, that had passed 3-2.

“I would like to table this vote until we get better legal advice,” Cheveralls said. “This is not a cheap political stunt. I do not relish my phone ringing off the hook about this matter and I do not relish buying a pizza Friday night and seeing the headline DA finds School Committee guilty.”

Wickman disagreed with Cheveralls about getting a second opinion.

“I take exception to what you say about our school attorney,” she said. “I have full confidence in her, especially since the DAs in different counties can’t agree.”

“I don’t understand how people, the same few people, one person, can (file a complaint) anonymously,” Wickman said. “Why can’t they come before the School Committee and discuss the situation?”

Cheveralls said he just wants to understand the Open Meeting Law better before the committee takes a vote. “It only becomes a problem when you break (the law). Which we’ve done, numerous times,” he said.

Justicz said there seems to be a great deal of interpretation of the law among the district attorneys.

“It was a simple mistake,” she said. “If you put it into context, there were no deliberations. I don’t see a whole lot of variance between Naomi and the district attorney.”

Wenger said she would like to process the whole situation before taking a vote.

“That’s how we got in this pickle in the first place, taking time to process it,” Wickman said.

The motion to extend Jefferson’s contract passed 3-2, with Cheveralls and Wenger opposed.

The committee also approved the minutes of the Sept. 18 “informal coffee” to be submitted as the official record of the meeting. The minutes state:

“Approximately 20-25 town residents shared comments and asked questions about the role of the superintendent and the pending contract extension vote. Discussions ranged from the hiring climate for the school superintendents to evaluation models to perceptions of the (Harvard Elementary School) climate and performance. Committee members did not deliberate. No votes were taken.”

The minutes were submitted by school department secretary Jackie Smith, but Wickman suggested the minutes be signed by Justicz since she hosted the “informal coffee.”

One resident, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said the minutes do not accurately portray what happened at the home of Justicz.

“There was actual deliberation between the public and the members of the school committee. In fact, Stu led the deliberation,” the resident said. “The consensus of the room was to not extend the contract, but that message was never relayed to the public.”

Justicz also forwarded a copy of the e-mail notice she had sent out to unknown members of the community inviting them to attend the “informal coffee.”

“Thanks to many of you for e-mailing me with your thoughts on the current discussion of Dr. Jefferson’s contract,” she wrote. “I appreciate your taking the time to contact me and to help me understand the different viewpoints out there; I think it’s important to get as much input on the decision as possible.

“That said, I feel that my responsibility is to delve into people’s concerns and weigh them against the positives ” she wrote.

None of the comments received via e-mail or at the “informal coffee” were released to the public; positive or negative.

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