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OML Complaint Alleges School Cmte Held Secret Special Ed Meeting

School Cmte Claims Misunderstaning Motivated The Complaint; Asks Attorney General to Dismiss It
by Robert Stewart
 
A presentation by the School District’s Director of Pupil Personnel Services on Special Education trends in the district on Nov. 13 has sparked controversy with parents in a special education group and has led to an official complaint to the state’s Attorney General that the School Committee violated the state’s Open Meeting Law.
     Attorney Alan Hoch filed the complaint in early December after viewing video tapes and data from School Committee meetings in October and November and discovering what he believed were discrepancies between what was presented publicly at the November 13 meeting and what may have been discussed privately by School Committee members and administrators in executive session.
     Hoch believed that the private discussions were held sometime before the Nov. 13 meeting. Hoch filed the complaint on behalf
of himself and on behalf of an anonymous individual who uses the name “John Doe.”
     In the complaint, Hoch alleges that at the Nov. 13 meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Laura Chesson made a statement which he believed indicated that School Committee members and administrators had discussed a matter privately before the data was shown publicly. The statement was made during a presentation by Dr. Jill Greene, the District’s PPS Director.
     During Greene’s presentation, Superintendent Chesson was showing slides which contained data in support of the presentation. As she was advancing the slides, Dr. Chesson said of one slide, “So this was the chart that, um, I had shown the last time which shows for the students with disabilities in district...” According to the complaint, Dr. Chesson then showed a slide that was not listed as one of the 14 slides used in the Nov. 13 presentation. 
     Hoch concluded from Dr. Chesson’s statement and from an unlisted slide that a second set of slides existed and that the School Committee and administrators had discussed special education issues in private session sometime before the Nov. 13 meeting. In the complaint, Hoch stated, “The Committee illegally and secretly met concerning special education issues, using the second deck of slides, either on Oct. 16 or at some other time prior to its Nov. 13 meeting . . . We allege and charge that the Committee intentionally committed an egregious and serious violation of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law...”
     In response to the complaint, the School Committee released all minutes – both public and executive session – of the Nov. 13 meeting and the Oct. 16 meeting. According to the law firm representing the School Committee, Murphy, Hesse, Toomey and Lehane LLP, the meetings were properly posted
and the content and discussions as posted on the respective agendas were followed at those meetings. In regards to the Nov. 13 meeting where Dr. Greene made a presentation on Special Education and where Dr. Chesson made the statement about a slide, the Committee’s law firm characterized that statement as a “misstatement.” In their response to Hoch’s allegations, the Committee’s attorney states, “Dr. Chesson had not, in fact, ever presented this material to the Committee, but mistakenly thought that she had done so.”
     In conclusion, the Committee’s attorney said the allegations made in the Hoch complaint are unfounded and the complaint should be dismissed. The attorney’s response states, “... Dr. Chesson had merely become confused and misstated the facts in relation to the chart shared with the Committee by Ms. Greene on Nov. 13, 2019. This chart had not been seen by any Committee member prior to that date.
     “While Dr. Chesson’s momentary lapse of memory may have been regrettable in this case due to the resulting confusion by Attorney Hoch and his client, it does not constitute a violation of the Open Meeting Law.” In addition to requesting that Hoch’s complaint be dismissed, the Committee’s attorney also requested that the Attorney General’s Office find that the School Committee complied with the Open Meeting Law.
     The state’s Attorney General’s Office will review the complaint and the School Committee response and make a finding in the next several weeks.                 School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert was puzzled by the allegations that she claimed were inaccurate. She stated, “I personally encourage our community members to watch the videos of our October meetings as they further substantiate the facts outlined by our district counsel.”
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