Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office has found that Lexington’s School Committee violated state open meeting laws when it approved a contract extension for the Superintendent of Schools Paul Ash last year in a closed-door meeting.
In a determination issued by the state July 26, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Sclarsic said the School Committee “improperly voted to extend the Superintendent’s contract” during an executive session on June 1, 2011.
The attorney general’s office has decided it will not nullify the contract extension, however, because Sclarsic said that at the time of the vote the Lexington School Committee had not been made aware of the state's May 2011 interpretation of the open meeting law requiring non-union personnel contracts be voted upon in open sessions.
But the Attorney General’s office did order the school committee to immediately comply with state open meeting laws. Sclarsic cautioned that if similar violations occur in the future, the state may nullify the committee's votes.
School Committee Chairwoman Margaret Coppe said in a statement this week responding to the attorney general's determination that the committee will, "as it always has, make every effort to follow" open meeting laws.
“The School Committee takes this decision seriously and will adhere to the guidance provided in this decision as we move forward,” Coppe said.
The attorney general’s office issued the determination in response to complaints filed in June of last year by two Lexington residents, Eric Eid-Reiner and Dawn McKenna, claiming the contract extension for Ash should have been voted on during a meeting that was open to the public.
At the time, Ash was under fire from a number of parents in Lexington who were concerned about low morale in the school district because of the departure of several popular teachers. Those concerns triggered a report on the school district that did find problems with teacher morale, including some who said the do not speak out for fear of retribution.
Ash’s contract was set to expire in 2013, but the School Committee’s vote in the closed-door meeting extended superintendent’s contract until June 30, 2015.
The Attorney General’s office noted that there was some disagreement among School Committee members, including Jessie Steigerwald, about whether the vote on the contract extension needed to be ratified in public. But the report noted that then Chairwoman Mary Ann Stewart said in a public meeting on June 7 that the vote taken on June 1 had already triggered a legally binding contract extension.
The Attorney General’s office also found that the School Committee failed to provide sufficient information in meeting notices for executive sessions on May 25 and June 1 of 2011. In each instance, the School Committee issued notices that contract negotiations would be discussed with non-union personnel, but they did not specify it was the superintendent’s contract.
“Providing the public with this additional information would not have been detrimental to the Committee’s negotiation process,” Sclarsic wrote in the determination. “It would, however, have put an interested member of the public on notice that there was a specified individual whose contract was being negotiated.”
Coppe said Wednesday that the School Committee has already taken steps to be more specific about which contracts are being discussed in executive sessions.