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School panel head in Dedham won’t let blogger speak

Official calls his action justified

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / March 14, 2010

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What began as a semi-adversarial relationship surrounding an issue known as “tutor-gate’’ in Dedham is now a stalemate between a local blogger seeking information and the School Committee chairman who refuses to allow him to speak at public meetings.

More than a year ago, Brian Keaney and others posting to MyDedham.org questioned a decision by Dedham School Superintendent June Doe to pull teachers from a special education classroom to home-tutor a former School Committee member’s disabled child.

Keaney has been relentless — in print and in person — with his requests for interviews and documents, and for the most part he has been rebuffed by school officials. And now his tenacity has prompted School Committee chairman David Roberts to prohibit him from speaking during the public comment period for what Roberts termed disruptive and inappropriate behavior.

During a recent attempt to speak, Keaney stood at the podium for almost an entire meeting, waiting to be recognized. He said later that he sees the ban on his speaking as a First Amendment affront that revved up as he sought answers to unpopular questions.

If Doe had just granted him an interview in the thick of the “tutor-gate’’ controversy, as she did for other news outlets, he said, he wouldn’t have had to employ the Freedom of Information Act to ask for information, as he has done a number of times.

“But she told me in a letter that she wouldn’t tell me anything, or give me any information, that she was not legally required to,’’ he said.

Doe did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

In the “tutor-gate’’ controversy, she has settled with the federal government and agreed to provide compensatory services to those students left behind in the classroom, while also updating training, policies, and procedures per the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

But Keaney said a Feb. 28 deadline for the Dedham School Department to post updates on its website was not met, renewing his resolve to raise more questions.

Roberts, meanwhile, says his decision to bar Keaney from speaking is justified and supported by others on his panel.

“This was not a ‘lone ranger’ approach by any means,’’ he said. “I have the whole committee behind me.’’ As for the missed deadline, he said the district asked for, and received, an extension to March 26 because a scheduled day of in-service training ended up being a snow day and had to be postponed. “As far as I know, we still can’t control the weather,’’ he said.

Roberts said Keaney has quarreled with everyone at School Committee meetings, from board members to the stenographer who takes minutes. And he insists on discussing “confidential’’ issues and “second guesses’’ the answers he is given, Roberts said.

“He has complained that he is being treated differently than other reporters,’’ Roberts said. “Well, he is acting differently, like it is his private press conference.’’

Roberts said there is no state statute that requires the School Committee to accept public input during meetings. There is a local one, Keaney said, pointing to Article 5 of the 1987 Town Meeting that says: “That the right of any citizen to appear before any Town board or agency and be allowed to speak upon any topic under discussion is fundamental to our form of government, and shall not be unreasonably abridged. . . . That all public meetings shall, within reason, and subject to appropriate rules of order and procedure, be accessible to Dedham citizens for open discussion of issues of concern.’’

Keaney said what bothers him the most about the school officials “is the hubris and the complete unwillingness to admit a mistake.’’

“I’m not even talking about the initial incident,’’ he said. “I mean that their efforts to shut me up have been a complete failure.’’

The committee has not reassessed or tried to come up with a workable strategy to deal with him, he said. “The worst part is that the committee’s actions reflect terribly on what is a great school system.’’

Christopher Ott, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that he couldn’t comment on Dedham specifically, but that the general rule is the presiding officer at a public meeting has the authority to exclude someone whose conduct disrupts the meeting.

“That authority doesn’t allow someone to be excluded, though, simply because the presiding officer disagrees with the content of what they are saying,’’ Ott said.

In Dedham, tempers flared at a Nov. 4 meeting as the School Committee discussed bullying and dispute resolution.

Keaney attempted to read a lengthy statement, but Roberts cut him off.

Keaney said what he was trying to express, in response to Roberts’s continual assertion to him over the months that questions were not allowed, was that at least seven residents at recent meetings had been allowed to ask questions on topics ranging from recycling to the “tutor-gate’’ controversy, but that he was not allowed to do so.

Roberts said he’s doing what’s best for everyone: “I know what I did, and what our committee did, and I stand by it.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

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