WVN #334: The SchoolCom's revealing emails
- Dear Wayland Voter,
Three private emails kept from the public until now have subjected the School Committee to criticism and raised questions about the Committee's openness to citizens and adherence to the law. Watch for more documents to be disclosed.
Also in this newsletter: Wayland voters favored Coakley.
CHAIRMAN APOLOGIZES FOR INSULTING CITIZENS, SUGGESTING PR FOR OVERRIDE
Chairman Louis Jurist says he regrets sending an email to the rest of the School Committee after a Jan. 11 meeting in which he insulted two citizens and tried to persuade the Committee that it would be good PR to make nominal cuts in administrative staff to help pass a possible tax override in 2011. Jurist apologized but didn't disavow his views, which included describing Superintendent Gary Burton as being "disingenuous " about administrative cuts.
The email became known because Jurist accidentally included the email address of a citizen who had commented on school matters. The email was passed to others and ultimately shared with the press. See:
Jurist wouldn't comment to WVN but told the Wayland Town Crier that he believes his email didn't violate the Open Meeting Law, a statute much on the minds of Committee members because they had just lost an OML case in the state Supreme Judicial Court. That case involves two emails sent privately in 2004 as the Committee deliberated Superintendent Burton's annual evaluation.
Though Jurist signed off his Jan. 12 email "More later," he says he did not follow up and there were no replies from other members. There was no interchange and thus no deliberation of administrative reductions, Jurist said.
After his apology at a Jan. 14 meeting, a citizen asked him, "How do you think the administrative secretary will feel when she hears she is being let go for PR purposes so you can shove another override down our throats?"
WITHHELD EMAIL CRITICIZED SUPERINTENDENT
Emails written in 2004 by then-members Lori Frieling and Heather Pineault were one subject of a strongly worded Massachusetts Supreme Court decision last Dec. 31 declaring that the Committee cannot deliberate in private either in executive (closed) session or by email. The School Committee had released a number of documents but gave up those two emails only when specifically ordered by the Court. Why were they withheld? The content of one suggests an answer.
Frieling's email is supportive of Burton. (After she left the School Committee she became a founding officer of SOSWayland, the political action committee that has supported every expenditure proposed by the Committee.)
But Pineault, a former teacher, was critical of Burton's job performance.
That in itself might be a surprise to those who follow the School Committee's work. When the Committee first voted to hire counsel to fight an Open Meeting Law complaint filed by the Town Crier and ultimately pursued by the district attorney to the Supreme Court, some observers asked what the fuss was about: everything the Committee wrote about Burton tended to picture him as one of the greatest gifts to American education since Horace Mann.
Pineault's seven-page email to then-Chairman Jeff Dieffenbach said of Burton: "The biggest weaknesses that I see are his lack of vision for the district which directly affects his leadership, his attention to details (errors in meeting minutes for almost every meeting, advanced planning, giving a new School Committee member an incomplete and not up-to-date policy manual, etc.), and his communication skills. Personally I have concerns about his communication with other administrators too (REMAINDER OF SENTENCE REDACTED). I do not believe this is an appropriate way to handle concerns that have come from a School Committee member, speaking at times as a parent, as a PTO participant and as a School Committee member. (FOLLOWING SENTENCE REDACTED)."
Pineault's detailed email mentions such specifics as contract negotiations with nurses not being handled as efficiently and professionally as possible. Burton refused to take responsibility for the nurses "until he was absolutely forced to," she wrote. She said Burton's communication with the Committee was not open enough. Her email ends with several specific suggestions for improvement.
The 2004 emails are available at:
In Pineault's email several passages have been struck out with heavy black ink. In response to a WVN reporter's question Dieffenbach said he deleted those passages because they referred to other people. The document gives the appearance of something disclosed by the FBI or CIA after a Freedom of Information request. Whoever the persons may be, if they are public employees or elected or appointed officials, they don't necessarily enjoy immunity from public view. And more content than just names was censored.
Since the public can only guess at the persons referred to, the redactions raise questions about whether the Committee fully complied with the court order. The editor of the Town Crier, the originator of the complaint leading to the emails being disclosed, told WVN, "We have not yet decided whether we will pursue further action regarding the redacted lines."
Dieffenbach was combative about the Open Meeting Law case from the beginning. Only Jurist, a relatively new member at the time, argued against litigation. In Jurist's opinion, the matter wasn't important enough to justify the legal fees. The cost to taxpayers has been estimated by the School Committee as $8,000-9,000. But records to document those costs haven't been disclosed, though citizens say they have filed Public Records requests for that and other information.
Much of the Jan. 19 Committee meeting was devoted to deciding how to respond to citizens' requests for more documents: individual evaluation comments from 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009. (There were none in 2006.) Jurist and member Barb Fletcher said that the individual inputs weren't "draft evaluations." Member Deb Cohen, an attorney, believes that the SJC ordered the release of the 2004 inputs only to satisfy the requirement to evaluate Burton in open session. Dieffenbach said that the Committee's lawyer regarded the court decision as unclear on that point.
Ultimately the Committee implicitly agreed with Dieffenbach's observation that if they didn't release the documents they might wind up in court again. The vote for disclosure was unanimous. Again, material referring to other personnel will be blacked out.
Suppose the rest of the Committee had listened to Jurist years ago. Suppose that this month Jurist had taken a deep breath and checked one more time before hitting the Send button of his computer after a long Committee meeting. Think what we wouldn't know. Imagine what else we don't know.
-- Michael Short
WAYLAND VOTES FOR COAKLEY
Though the suburban vote carried Republican Scott Brown to victory in the Jan. 19 special election to fill Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat, Wayland voted for Democrat Martha Coakley.
In Wayland the vote was 3,597 for Attorney General Coakley, 2,915 for Brown, who represents Wayland in the state Senate, a 55-45 percent margin. Joseph Kennedy received 38 Wayland votes. Brown Carried Weston; Coakley carried Concord.
Wayland's voter turnout was 73 percent of 8,952 registered voters, in the same range as many other suburbs such as Dover, Carlisle and Sherborn. The statewide turnout was about 54 percent, unusual for a special election but typical for a regular state election.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor