Friday, June 14, 2024

Mayor David Maher stands behind Patricia A. Berry, acting executive secretary to the School Committee, at a March meeting. A meeting Tuesday resulted in bad feeling among committee members and may have some unfortunate ramifications. (Photo: Marc Levy)

An incorrect student-assignment policy at the Amigos School ends today, years after it was supposed to, School Committee members said Tuesday night after a special meeting.

But the move wasn’t a result of actions at the meeting, which was called to talk about the school district’s controlled choice policy and how students are admitted to the dual-language, Spanish-immersion school. It was cut short by voting maneuvers so shocking that two committee members left City Hall muttering and cursing.

Although the policy would still be going on had the meeting not been called, it will end informally, through phone calls made to district staff and officials by committee members Fred Fantini and Alice Turkel before the meeting and again afterward by Fantini.

There were three votes during the meeting, all ushered through with brutal swiftness by Mayor David Maher: one on a motion by Fantini dissolving a controlled-choice team, which passed 5-2; a second by Turkel to take up controlled-choice issues at a summer meeting to be held at an undetermined date, which passed with six yes votes and one vote of “present”; and another by Fantini to end the meeting — after less than 12 minutes — that passed 4-3, with Patty Nolan and vice chairman Marc McGovern each calling out an angry “No” and Richard Harding calling out an even angrier “Hell no.”

Harding and Nolan had been the “no” votes in the first motion; Harding had been the “present” vote in the second.

A request by Nolan to be read the second motion before voting was granted reluctantly by the mayor. A request by Harding to table the third vote was rejected, with the mayor saying the process didn’t allow it.

“You should be embarrassed. This is an embarrassment,” McGovern said to the mayor and opposing committee members as the meeting adjourned abruptly.

“Unbelievable,” Harding said, stalking out of the meeting, before repeating the word in even harsher language.

“Ludicrous,” said one of the two parents who spoke during public comment, while the other moaned in astonishment, “Oh my god.”

Meeting itself is the issue

The controlled-choice policy applied at Amigos was not the conflict, as committee members on both sides, as well as parent Chris Summersgill, saw and agreed that it was overdue to end in addition to being wrong — so wrong that the percentages of students permitted to attend the school in three categories of Spanish- and English-language skills add up nonsensically to 90 percent rather than 100 percent.

The policy was put into place March 6, 2007, and was intended to last one year. The formula deciding who is enrolled was kept on the books mistakenly for more than four years.

“Why was that?” Summersgill asked after the meeting. “Why did nobody catch that?”

After the meeting, Fantini called the district’s chief operating officer, Jim Maloney, to confirm that the policy would be ending today “by the end of the day.” That’s good news for Summersgill, who said his child is fifth on a waiting list for the school but has been put in the wrong category by the district’s much criticized Family Resource Center. His child is now more likely to get in next fall.

That left the calling of the meeting itself as the issue ratcheting up tension between committee members.

Any three members of the committee can call a special meeting, and this one was called by Harding, McGovern and Nolan, apparently by suggestion of district staff when asked by Nolan about the Amigos policy last week. (All committee members may not know or agree on the rules. Nancy Tauber said late Tuesday that the rules come into play only after following protocol in which “you contact the chairman of the committee, and … the chairman doesn’t want to have the meeting,” with the chairman being the mayor. Nolan’s understanding of the rules does not include that step. “If three people can call a meeting, we don’t need the mayor,” she said. “So why do it?”)

Maher disappeared immediately after adjournment, but Fantini, Tauber and Turkel all portrayed the special meeting as a rarely used device, making Tuesday’s meeting an aberration, while McGovern and Nolan — reached by phone later — scoffed at that. Regular meetings are held only every other Tuesday for purposes such as this, they said. And while 48 hours’ notice is needed for a special meeting, this one was on the schedule nearly a week ago.

Tauber said late Tuesday that she hadn’t been notified of the meeting and “didn’t know what the agenda was,” but Fantini and Turkel certainly did; their motions were ready when the meeting began.

No answer

Still, Turkel called the meeting “theatrical politics” on the part of the three members who called it, and referred to it repeatedly as an “emergency meeting … this is the kind of meeting that gets called when a school burns down and you need to figure out where to put kids or when the union’s about to go out on strike and you need to settle a contract quickly. This could have been done last Tuesday, this could have been done next Tuesday.” She also said it had been called “on no notice,” although in the next breath she said it had been posted six days earlier, on Wednesday — she just didn’t have context for the meeting until 9:30 a.m.

It left her enough time to call the superintendent’s office to ask for the Amigos policy to end, though, and when Nolan confronted her on how frequently information about meetings and supporting documents arrive late, Turkel went silent.

“We often get information the day of, in fact it has happened often, so to suggest that that’s why you played this game is just ludicrous,” Nolan told her. “Alice, I can document that there’s a lot of times we get information on our desks, and this was sent earlier. So you can pretend, but that has nothing to do with why.”

A few minutes later the dynamic played out again. Turkel used the term “emergency meeting” and when Nolan told her to stop using the term — “It’s a special meeting, according to our rules. Stop pretending otherwise. What is that about?” — Turkel went silent.

Questionable calls

Perhaps not knowing or believing that the special meeting had been suggested by district staff, Tauber said her vote to end discussion Tuesday was based in part on how busy she knew the staff was in wrapping up the school year. And the agenda for next week’s committee meeting is not, to the best of her knowledge, a busy one.

To the best of McGovern’s knowledge, though, it is. It is for the final meeting of the year and includes the superintendent’s evaluation, he noted, and discussion of controlled choice could have taken another 45 minutes if allowed. To him, Harding and Nolan, it seemed there was no reason to wait to take up the issue just to add it to the final agenda of the year.

And while Fantini had announced earlier, shortly after the abruptly ended meeting, that “The issue was resolved, as you saw, with one phone call,” McGovern was surprised that Fantini and Turkel seemed to be advocating for committee members to call the superintendent to change policy instead of having discussions the public can hear and take part in.

“Individual members shouldn’t be calling the superintendent to change policy,” McGovern said. “My guess is that if we called, the others would be upset.”

Another issue, and one likely to return, lies in Fantini’s first motion, which passed 5-2 and dissolves the committee’s controlled choice team. The district’s Innovation Agenda, which the committee passed March 15 in a 6-1 vote, specifies on pages 8 and 14 that the team keeps working so its recommendations and guidelines can be implemented in district schools.

Harding and Nolan tried to warn the other committee members of the conflict, but the mayor said the vote was already under way and no discussion could be held.