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Updated February 11, 2021 09:37AM

Mount Greylock Committee on Remote vs. Hybrid Question Remains Secret

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Updated Thursday morning with further comment from the district's superintendent.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In-person classes resumed for most students in the Mount Greylock Regional School District this week with the blessing of a secret committee created recently under a memorandum of agreement between the district and its union.
But guidance from the Attorney General's Office suggests that committee and others like it are subject to the Open Meeting Law.
Superintendent Jason McCandless this week said the public health metrics the district uses to determine whether to stay fully remote indicated that a return to hybrid instruction on Monday, Feb. 8, was appropriate.
The six-person committee formed under the MOA is charged with reviewing those metrics and consulting with local health officials to determine whether it is appropriate to override the numbers either way -- either going remote when the stats do not require it or having in-person classes when the numbers dictate otherwise.
This week, the Hoosac Valley Regional School Committee talked about following a similar model.
"Monday's decision was dictated by the metrics," Mount Greylock's McCandless said this week. "There was a committee vote. It was a unanimous vote. But it was to support the metrics that say we should be back in school."
McCandless serves on the six-person committee, along with the district's business manager, Joe Bergeron, and a member of the School Committee, Curtis Elfenbein. McCandless said the other three members are union representatives from each of the district's three schools: Lanesborough Elementary, Williamstown Elementary and Mount Greylock Regional School.
On Tuesday, he declined to identify the union representatives.
"The advice I've gotten thus far is the union retains a right to not have those names necessarily made public," McCandless said.
"The members come from among our teacher, paraprofessional and other ranks and are not necessarily folks who have signed up to being the public eye."
McCandless said the decision to not hold the Joint Labor Management Committee meetings in public or even to identify the panel's members is based on his experience with JLMCs in the Pittsfield Public Schools and advice from the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the district's legal counsel, Westfield's Dupere Law Offices.
That advice arguably runs contrary to guidance released by the Attorney General's Office in a November newsletter.
The full text of that guidance reads:
The Open Meeting Law defines "public body" as any "multiple-member board, commission, committee or subcommittee within the executive or legislative branch or within any county, district, city, region or town, however created, elected, appointed or otherwise constituted, established to serve a public purpose." G.L. c. 30A, § 18. The Law further defines a "subcommittee" as "any multiple-member body created to advise or make recommendations to a public body." Id. A public body forms a subcommittee when the body formally authorizes multiple members of the public body to perform a task or prepare a recommendation to the public body. If a single member undertakes a task, or multiple members volunteer on their own to do something without action by the public body, no subcommittee is created. The name of a subcommittee does not determine whether it is subject to the Open Meeting Law. A "working group" or "task force" or other multimember group will still be subject to the Open Meeting Law if it was created by a public body to perform a task. Even subcommittees that have members who are not part of the public body will be subject to the Open Meeting Law if they meet the other criteria.
There is some ambiguity in the guidance. It first refers to subcommittees as bodies with "multiple members of the public body," which Mount Greylock's Joint Labor Management Committee does not have; Elfenbein is the only member of the School Committee on the JLMC.
On the other hand, the AGO's guidance states that, an "other multimember group will still be subject to the Open Meeting Law if it was created by a public body to perform a task." The JLMC was created by the School Committee when it agreed to the MOA, the term "multimember" in this clause is not the same as "multiple members of the public body" used elsewhere in the guidance, and it is indisputable that the JLMC is performing a task.
Then there is the attorney general's standard guide to the OML, which states, "The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to ensure transparency in the deliberations on which public policy is based. Because the democratic process depends on the public having knowledge about the considerations underlying governmental action, the Open Meeting Law requires, with some exceptions, that meetings of public bodies be open to the public."
After receiving a copy of the AGO's November guidance on the Open Meeting Law, McCandless on Wednesday said he had no response but would share the attorney general's guidance with others.
Thursday morning, he replied with further comment on behalf of the district.
"The JLMC has one school committee member," McCandless wrote. "The JLMC does not report back to the School Committee to advise on further actions by the School Committee. The JLMC stands as a human-overlay to a metrics driven process -- to examine the nuances of the data to potentially create exceptions to the data driven process.
"We believe that we operating appropriately within the law, within the ethics that guide our profession as we move forward during challenging times for all involved."
On Tuesday, McCandless said he understood that members of the public might expect the district's Joint Labor Management Committee to be subject to the OML, but he argued its work would fall under one of the law's 10 recognized purposes of executive session. 
"I totally get it," McCandless said. "I would suggest it is indeed a negotiation. It impacts working conditions, impacts the health and wellness of staff and students. And our contention is it absolutely falls under the umbrella of negotiations and should be, to some degree, protected from some of the pressures that could come to bear on this."
Unlike negotiations, which ultimately lead to contracts being ratified in public by the School Committee in an open session, the Mount Greylock JLMC conducts all of its business, including votes, in secrecy.
McCandless likened the newly formed JLMC to similar committees he used in Pittsfield to advise on topics like teacher evaluations. Those would appear to fall under a separate piece of guidance from the AGO in its November newsletter: that advisory committees may fall outside the OML if they "merely make recommendations on an action the official could take on her own."
Nothing in the Jan. 28 MOA between the district and the Mount Greylock Education Association authorizes the superintendent to take action "on his own." It is only a majority decision of the six-person JLMC that decides whether the district will go remote or have in-person instruction.
"We have our advice," McCandless said on Tuesday. "That's simply how it is. If we're directed otherwise by the state or someone with authority over us, we understand that and would comply."

Tags: COVID-19,   MGRSD,   remote learning,   

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