Attorney General’s Office: Amherst Regional School Committee Violated Opening Meeting Law Last Summer (INCLUDES UPDATES)

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has determined that the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee violated the state’s open meeting law last year, in deliberating on committee business by email, and failing to follow proper procedures in announcing executive sessions, among other errors.

The May 2 letter from Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush, to the school committee’s attorney, Thomas Colomb, is nine pages long and can be seen at this link: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0ByHvTPeU6KJZUERydWhMNENmWDA

The Attorney General’s office ordered the committee into “immediate and future compliance with the law’s requirements, and we caution that similar future violations could be considered evidence of intent to violate the law.”  The state previously found an open meeting law violation by the committee in 2014, and by an individual member in 2015. The action ordered this week, of compliance with the law, is comparatively mild. The Attorney General’s office can also impose fines, nullify meeting outcomes, and order public officials to attend training.

The current Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee Chairman, Eric Nakajima, who was not yet on the committee during the period in question, said via email yesterday (May 5) that he had no statement on the committee’s behalf. However, Nakajima said that since he joined it in October, the committee “has been diligent in following the open meeting law and focused on building a transparent and open environment for all our discussions and decisions.”

The 2016 open meeting law violations occurred while the committee was negotiating a separation agreement with former superintendent Maria Geryk last summer, and had begun her annual performance evaluation.

The two complaints which resulted in the finding, filed by Shutesbury resident Michael Hootstein, are now “resolved,” according to the state.

No performance evaluation was ultimately conducted of Geryk for 2015-2016, the state found.  The Central Berkshire Regional School District in Dalton’s staff list shows that Geryk is now employed there as a psychologist. The list can viewed at this link: http://www.cbrsd.org/district_information/staff_directory

Geryk was granted a controversial $309,000 buyout in Amherst last August. She negotiated the separation agreement, after claiming that she was wrongly tarred as racist over her actions involving the mother of a Pelham Elementary School child. Geryk had barred the mother, Aisha Hiza, from  school grounds, after a dispute between Hiza and school officials. Hiza maintained her daughter was being bullied by other children for having dark skin.

The regional school committee failed to provide enough details in public meeting notices for “several meetings” and also didn’t respond complaints of open meeting law violations within 14 business days, according to the Attorney General’s office.

The findings were made after the state office reviewed emails between school committee members, and spoke by phone in March with Laura Kent, who was briefly the regional committee’s chairwoman, and with Katherine Appy,  the former Amherst School Committee chairwoman.

Appy and Kent had not responded to emails seeking comment as of 9 p.m. yesterday. (May 5.)

The regional committee includes nine representatives from Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett. Five members are needed to make up a quorum.

Geryk sought to end her contract while the committee was scheduled to complete her annual evaluation, and committee members submitted evaluations of Geryk’s job performance for the 2015-2016 school year, Assistant Attorney General Rush stated. Kent, Appy and Darius Modestow, who was vice chair of the Pelham School Committee, met to review evaluations in late June, and determined some weren’t compliant with the terms set out by Geryk’s contract,  or state standards.

On June 23, a secretary sent an email on behalf of Kent, Appy and Modestow to committee members, stating that a previously-scheduled June 28 meeting was postponed because of “members … who may have violated our school committee policies and potentially breached the Superintendent’s contract. For example, ad hominem attacks and false information may have been used.” The phrase “ad hominem,” which is Latin for “to the person,” is often used to refer to a personal character attack.

Amherst School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage then requested a copy of the evaluation she had submitted via the Survey Monkey system, but in an email from Appy, was told that “each individual evaluation is considered a personnel record of Maria and cannot be released without her consent.” Kent also communicated “individually with several members of the committees about their evaluations, and/or the process.”  No quorum was reached in those conversations.

Geryk contacted the district’s counsel on June 27 about her wish to terminate the contract, due to legal, contractual and other claims. Although the regional and elementary school committee chairpersons were  informed of Geryk’s email, other members did not learn of it until an executive session on July 13.

The posted notices for executive sessions on July 13 and 20 mentioned strategy sessions for negotiations with non-union personnel, but did not identify Geryk by name. Notices for meetings on Aug 1 and 9 did name Geryk.  One or two committee  members joined some meetings “remotely,” but participation was not always announced, and the participants did not always state whether they were alone at the remote locations, the state found.

At several meetings, the committees discussed whether they could conduct Geryk’s evaluation in the light of the contract settlement negotiations, but in an Aug. 4 email, before the evaluation was finalized, Kent informed the committees that Geryk had accepted a financial offer.

The Attorney General’s office found that the committee improperly deliberated by email twice about Geryk’s evaluation. The June 23 email from Kent, Appy and Modestow, contained “an opinion” about non-compliant superintendent evaluations, a matter that was pending before the committee.  The language “should have been saved for discussion at a meeting,” Rush stated.

Meanwhile, Appy’s June 24 response to Cage’s request for a copy of her evaluation “should not have included the rest of the committees.

“Any discussion about whether an evaluation is compliant and/or is a public record should have been saved for a posted meeting,” Rush stated.

Although the letter mentions the affiliated Union #26 School Committee at times, the finding of violations seems to be against just the regional school committee.

Open meeting law complaints were submitted by Hootstein on Aug. 1 and 9 of 2016 but the committee did not respond until this past March 27, despite repeated requests for a reply, Rush wrote.

In related news, the regional school committee voted this week to terminate its contract with a superintendent search firm, Ray & Associates.  The firm had failed to uphold Massachusetts law in advertising the Amherst superintendent position, by asking applicants about criminal history in initial online applications.

This article may be updated with further comments.

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