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Mount Greylock Superintendent Rose Ellis and School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene.

Mount Greylock Committee Facing Open Meeting Law Complaint

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
09:20AM / Wednesday, June 18, 2014
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Mount Greylock Regional School Committee counsel Fred Dupere is drafting the committee's response to an Open Meeting Law complaint.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Tuesday reacted to an Open Meetings Law complaint lodged against one of its own.

Lanesborough resident Richard Cohen alleges that an April 11, 2013, email from committee member Robert Ericson "illegally expresses opinions about a topic that may come before the MGSC."
 
On Tuesday, the committee authorized its counsel, Fred Dupere, to send a response to the attorney general's office.
 
"In this circumstance, there does seem to be a sharing of an opinion," Dupere said. "Typically, what I'd respond to the attorney general is just what I said. ... Not a defensive position but  a position about what we see as appropriate for the School Committee ... and instruction to the School Committee that the procedures within the policy be followed."
 
Dupere said that it is a close call, and he is not sure whether the attorney general will find that a violation of the law has occurred. If such a determination is made, Dupere indicated he thought the sanctions would not be severe.
 
On April 11, 2013, Ericson sent an email addressed to Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene, the two other Lanesborough representatives on the regional school district committee and the three members of the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee. Cohen's complaint states that he became aware of the email last month.
 
In this missive, he asks Greene to post an agenda topic for an upcoming meeting to address recent high-level departures at the junior senior high school, which during the spring of '13 lost its principal and was soon to lose its then acting principal, among other staff losses.
 
Citing committee policy, Dupere agreed that a request to the chair to put an item on the agenda is one of a narrow set of uses for email communication. But he said such emails should be addressed to the chair only -- not other members of the School Committee and not third parties (such as the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee).
 
What may be more problematic is the tone of Ericson's letter.
 
In it he wrote, "I do not agree with your analysis that the school is in good shape right now. ... Furthermore, to parrot [Superintendent Rose Ellis'] comments that MG is in good shape with a strong management team seems to either indicate that the principal and vice principal positions are irrelevant when vacant or inexperienced, or that guidance is overmanned, and Mr. [Peter] Pannesco will not be missed there, none of which I believe is true."
 
Furthermore, Ericson states, "It seems that Mr. [Robert] Barton is right," in reference to an email sent by Barton to the same group.
 
On April 10, one day before Ericson's email, Barton, then a member of the Lanesborough Board of Selectmen and later chairman of the Lanesborough School Committee wrote "as a private citizen to share a concern."
 
Barton wrote in reference to recent departures at the high school and Lanesborough Elementary School and said, "I hope if you are considering renewal of our superintendent's contract that you will first do exit interviews with current and recent departures. There seem to be issues."
 
On Tuesday night, Ericson attempted to defend his email by explaining its context, but Dupere -- who represents the committee and not individual members -- cut him short.
 
"The issue is not why you wrote the email," Dupere said. "It's the content... Explanations of why you sent it have no impact on the attorney general's office. It's the content and who you sent it to."
 
He continued, "I'm not saying the content necessarily violates the Open Meeting Law. The attorney general's office will make that determination. What I'm saying is, in looking at it, it may have violated the Open Meeting Law. It's not good protocol. ... The issue in this case is it does express an opinion. Even if you had 100 good reasons for expressing the opinion, it does express an opinion."
 
School Committee Vice Chairman Chris Dodig and two of the Williamstown residents serving on the committee, David Langston and Colleen Taylor, spoke in Ericson's defense.
 
Dodig and Taylor said they thought it was unfortunate that volunteer committee members could be punished for a minor mistake.
 
"I see the point [Dupere is] making, but [the email] says, 'please add a discussion of the above topics to the next School Committee session,' " Dodig said. "I think the truth is an awful lot of us from time to time have gone a step too far in communications, and it's a good reminder in that regard... There are different levels of Open Meeting Law violation, it seems to me. ... There are fairly innocent ones, which I think this is. It's discouraging to me to see little things like this picked at."
 
Taylor echoed Dodig, saying, "we are human and are going to make mistakes."
 
Langston said he did not see where a violation of the law occurred since Ericson's email was not dealing with a topic currently before the committee.
 
Dupere said what matters is that it could have been a topic for the committee. In fact, Ericson was asking that it be made one.
 
"What's embedded in the email is Mr. Ericson's opinion on a particular issue," Dupere said. "Had it gone on the agenda, that would have been an opinion on an agenda item shared with other members.
 
"If [the opinion] had been shared directly with the chair as a rational for an agenda item, I don't think it would have been an issue."
 
Ellis sat out of the conversation until it was drawing to a close. But she asked for the floor to give her reaction.
 
"I want to say to the School Committee that I'm absolutely shocked by questionable behavior on behalf of one of its members," Ellis said. "I see this as covert and lacking in honesty and openness.
 
"There was plenty of opportunity around this time to discuss [the departures]. ... There was a discussion, and this did not come up."
 
Dodig moved that Ericson have 24 hours to review Dupere's response before it was forwarded to the attorney general's office. The motion was defeated by a vote of 3-2-2 with Dodig and Taylor voting yes and Ericson and David Backus (who was attending his last meeting as a member of the committee) abstaining.
 
A subsequent vote to authorize Dupere to respond on behalf of the committee was approved 6-0-1 with Ericson abstaining.
 
In other business on Tuesday, the committee discussed whether Mount Greylock should take advantage of an offer from the state to try out the new standardized assessment test, the Partnership of Assessments for College and Career Readiness (PARCC), at select grade levels next year in place of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment (MCAS) tests.
 
After a lengthy discussion of the issue, the committee decided to make a decision at a special meeting to be held next week. The commonwealth has a June 30 deadline to notify the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education whether districts will implement PARCC in the 2014-15 academic year.
 
The committee already was facing a special meeting next week to address another topic on Tuesday's agenda: the annual evaluations for Ellis. Greene told her colleagues on Tuesday night that she needed to delay consideration of the evaluations because only one of the seven-member committee returned their evaluations by the deadline. She said there were also issues with the the way several of the evaluations conformed to the format.
 
The committee also discussed recent communications it received from concerned parents about plans to cut late buses as a cost-saving measure. The committee's finance subcommittee reported that there may be more money in the budget due to the departure of a teacher that may not need to be immediately replaced, and the district is hoping to receive a higher transportation reimbursement from the state, which would defray its anticipated expenditure for regular bus service.
 
With those two variables unknown, the committee said it would revisit the issue of late buses over the summer.
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