Sunday, June 16, 2024

Nancy Tauber and Fred Fantini, in a photo taken last year, are two of the School Committee members who voted June 14 to shut down a committee controlled choice team and end that meeting after some six minutes — decisions that will continue to reverberate into the summer. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

The final School Committee meeting before summer was civil, but three members would have been within their rights Tuesday to tell the other four, “Told you so.”

The previous week there was a special meeting called by those three members, but they were left sputtering and protesting as the other four ran through a trio of rapid-fire motions and votes, including one that adjourned the meeting only six minutes and 17 seconds from the end of public comment.

Among the reasons given for the actions of the four was that there was no reason not to take up the issues this week instead of at the June 14 special meeting. Nancy Tauber said she had no reason to think the final week’s agenda would be a busy one, and Alice Turkel had also said the issues “could have been done last Tuesday, this could have been done next Tuesday.”

Unfortunately, this agenda was packed. The meeting lasted more than five hours, and could go that long only because the committee voted multiple times to extend it.

The previous meeting also added to the agenda; instead of being dealt with the previous week, three motions were about the topics of the special meeting — how parents and the district decide which schools get which kids; and the wait list for the bilingual Amigos School — and two others were about the way the previous meeting had been run.

They didn’t add much to the length of the meeting, though. Combined, the five took up only 35 minutes.

Another reason for the previous week’s actions cited by each of the four — Tauber, Turkel, Fred Fantini and Mayor David Maher, who runs the committee — was that the special meeting had been called so quickly, lacking a formal agenda and giving them no time to absorb information arriving the morning of June 14.

The meeting notice posted six days before, though, said the special meeting was “for the purpose of discussing issues related to the controlled choice policy, including but not limited to the policy on linguistic and SES balance as it applies to the assignment of students to the Amigos School.”

And all were able to discuss an extremely detailed eight-page document that arrived from Superintendent Jeffrey Young almost immediately before the Tuesday meeting as committee members were attending graduation ceremonies, lending credence to something Patty Nolan said June 14 in defense of the special meeting she helped call: “We often get information the day of … there’s a lot of times we get information on our desks [when we arrive at a meeting].”

Complaints about having no warning also didn’t prevent the four from voting to end three teams that helped prepare for the district’s restructuring plan, called the Innovation Agenda — a topic introduced on the fly during the June 14 meeting that allowed for no time to research or discuss.

Legal advice needed

As it turns out, that may not have been such a good idea. The Innovation Agenda explicitly includes one of those teams in its ongoing work, namely the controlled choice team, which means the vote dismantled part of the agenda and partially reversed the 6-0 vote taken March 15 approving it. While there was an implementation plan produced two months later that doesn’t mention the controlled choice team, that plan has never been voted on by the committee, according to district Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk.

Now the committee needs a legal opinion on whether the vote eliminating the controlled choice team was legal and how to proceed with the agenda now that it’s been taken — a motion made by member Richard Harding, one of the three who called the special meeting and one of the two, with Nolan, who voted against ending the teams.

Both tried to warn the five who voted in favor. “Are you saying you want to undo some part of the Innovation Agenda, which sets a pretty dangerous precedent, in my view?” Nolan asked. “Do you want to revote the Innovation Agenda?” Harding asked, to which Fantini replied: “No, no, I just want to eliminate the committees.”

The mayor cut off the conversation, noting that the vote was already under way.

“When the Innovation Agenda was voted, all of us had particular concerns. I had about 21 things I didn’t like about the Innovation Agenda,” Harding said Tuesday, contrasting his vote in favor of it with Turkel’s vote in opposition solely because it didn’t explicitly forbid “tracking” students through early testing of their educational abilities. “Diversity is something I care about, and the controlled choice team was working on [diversity],” Harding said. With the controlled choice team gone, “I might have taken that as the one thing to stop me from voting on this.”

Harding’s motion to seek legal advice passed unanimously.

“Followed procedure to the letter”

A second motion by Harding, to change committee rules to allow all members to talk on issues under discussion, seemed to be a reaction to how the June 14 meeting had been run by the mayor — with brutal efficiency that blocked debate.

Maher said Tuesday that “What happened last Tuesday followed procedure to the letter … that’s not my interpretation; that’s Roberts Rules of Order,” but his application of the rules seemed unusual when compared with the genial and sometimes even magnanimous way he has run hundreds of meetings since becoming mayor Feb. 22, 2010.

The issue was shunted to the governance committee by a 4-3 vote. The three voting against it were the three that called the June 14 special meeting, as well as the three voting against ending that meeting: Harding, Nolan and vice chairman Marc McGovern. The governance committee includes Fantini, Tauber and McGovern.

“I’d rather take my chances with a jury of 12,” Harding said.

Open meeting laws

The mayor, Fantini, Tauber and Turkel denied coordinating their approach to the June 14 meeting when asked, although the mayor and Tauber gave maddeningly indirect interviews and Fantini said he didn’t remember whether he’d talked with the other members before the special meeting. Even after Turkel said she’d talked to Fantini about “what I was going to do” and that she knew Fantini had talked with the mayor, he said he wasn’t sure. “Let me talk to [the mayor] and see what his recollection is. Let me talk to him and see what he recalls,” Fantini said.

A violation of the state’s open meeting laws don’t require a majority of members to meet in private. According to an open meeting law guide by Attorney General Martha Coakley, a violation can take place when as few as two members of a public body such as the School Committee communicate in any way “on any public business within its jurisdiction.” Another kind of violation involves “multiple communications” among members of a public body.

A single summer meeting of the committee was expected until Tuesday. Now McGovern, the mayor and superintendent are tasked by the committee with setting up “a series of meetings” over the summer to prepare for the next school year, discuss Innovation Agenda issues and talk about controlled choice.