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Judge voids pay raise for South Hadley school chief

By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / May 24, 2011

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A Hampshire Superior Court judge found that the South Hadley School Committee violated the state open meeting law and fined the board $5,000 for improperly granting a pay raise in a closed session to School Superintendent Gus A. Sayer, who has been criticized for his decisions during the bullying of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince.

The decision yesterday by Judge C. Brian McDonald admonished the School Committee for granting Sayer a contract extension and a 3 percent pay raise in closed meetings beginning in late February of 2010, according to court documents. Sayer could not be reached for comment last night.

On Jan. 10, 2010, Prince, a South Hadley High School student who had immigrated from Ireland, committed suicide after undergoing severe bullying by several of her fellow students. Following Prince’s suicide, several school officials were criticized for handling bullying episodes poorly.

While McDonald invalidated Sayer’s 3 percent pay increase, he said he could not overturn the contract extension.

“The purpose of [the open meeting law] is to ensure public access to decisions made by its public officials and to the way in which decisions are reached,’’ McDonald wrote. “The committee . . . abused this purpose. Unfortunately, I am unable to fully remedy the committee’s shameful conduct.’’

The lawsuit was filed by Luke Gelinas, Lorraine Gelinas, and Darby O’Brien, all of South Hadley.

Beginning in February 2010, the School Committee met in a series of executive sessions and voted to extend Sayer’s contract for another two years and to grant him a 3 percent pay increase, according to court documents.

Executive sessions, which are closed to the public, are allowed to discuss strategy in labor or litigation issues or negotiations, as well as personnel issues.

McDonald ruled that while the committee had violated the open meeting law, he could not invalidate Sayer’s contract due to a strict statute of limitations concerning public meetings.

The statute states that to invalidate any action taken at a meeting that is in violation of the open meeting law, a complaint must be filed within 21 days of the meeting, according to court documents.

Reached by phone last night, Luke Gelinas declined to comment and said he had not yet read the court’s full decision. He said he would hold a press conference today in South Hadley to discuss the case.

Gelinas had been critical of the school board’s executive sessions concerning Sayer and Sayer’s handling of the Prince crisis. He was thrown out of a meeting on April 14, 2010, after he called for the dismissal of school officials over their actions concerning Price.

As a result, he has also filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing Edward J. Boisselle, committee chairman at the time, and two South Hadley police officers of violating his civil rights by their actions at that meeting.

Boisselle could not be reached for comment last night.

Stewart Bishop can be reached at sbishop@globe.com.