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 Superintendent Paul Ash in a closed-door meeting last year.
In a determination issued 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.
However, the attorney general’s office has decided it will not nullify the extension, Sclarsic said, because at the time of the vote the School Committee had not been made aware of a then-recent interpretation of the open meeting laws that found contracts involving nonunion personnel must be voted upon in public sessions.
The attorney general’s office did order the School Committee to immediately comply with the state’s open meeting laws. Sclarsic cautioned that if violations occur in the future, the state may nullify the committee’s votes.
School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe said in a statement Tuesday responding to the attorney general’s determination that the panel will, “as it always has, make every effort to follow” open meeting laws.
‘The School Committee . . . will adhere to the guidance provided in this decision as we move forward.’
“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 2011 by two Lexington residents, Eric Eid-Reiner and Dawn McKenna, who said that 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 Lexington parents who were concerned about low morale in the school district after the departure of several popular teachers. Those concerns prompted the school district to hire consultant Bruce Wellman, a codirector of MiraVia LLC, to survey school employees. His report in March found several morale issues, including some employees who said they do not speak out about problems in the system for fear of retribution.
Ash’s contract was set to expire next year, but the School Committee’s vote in the closed-door meeting extended it 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 the committee’s chairwoman at the time, 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, 2011. In each instance, the School Committee issued notices that contract negotiations would be discussed with nonunion personnel, but did not specify it was the superintendent’s contract, according to Sclarsic.
“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.