During a brief but contentious public comment period at the Lexington School Committee’s meeting last week, residents spoke out against the committee’s decision to enter into contract negotiations with Superintendent Paul Ash, and expressed concerns about the lack of transparency and public input during the process.
The School Committee had voted, 3 to 2, in December to negotiate a new contract with Ash, who has been lauded by some officials and residents for steering the district through the worst years of the recession, but criticized by others for lowering teacher morale, among other issues.
In some ways, this is a repeat of the debate in the summer of 2011 when Ash’s current contract was negotiated.
“The last time his contract was approved, there was a memorable School Committee meeting with an hour and a half of angry public comment,” resident Theodora Martin, an Ash critic, reminded the committee Tuesday night. She added, “I can’t believe Dr. Ash has changed that much in two and a half years.”
But PTA Presidents’ Council chairwoman Leslie Zales lauded Ash at the Dec. 19 meeting for what she called his willingness to discuss issues with community members and attend community events.
“I have my issues, too. No one’s perfect. But in the two years I’ve been in this role I think we’re really lucky to have Dr. Ash, and I really respect the people he’s hired,” Zales said.
The School Committee has been discussing negotiation strategies in executive sessions, and met after Tuesday’s public meeting to continue the discussion. The next negotiation session had not been scheduled.
Ash, who started as superintendent in 2005, did not respond to a request for an interview by later in the week.
The final vote on the new contract will take place in public, and will be listed on the agenda, said School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe. She said the committee had not decided whether it would hold a meeting to hear from residents before voting on a final contract.
“We won’t know whether we’ll hold a public hearing until we reach a certain point in the negotiations,” Coppe said.
Some residents are concerned about the level of communication between the School Committee and the public, and are adamant that the committee should hear from them.
During Tuesday’s meeting, resident Diane Biglow asked School Committee members why they had not decided to hold a hearing on the Ash contract. “After all that’s happened in the past nine years, how can you make a decision without public input?” she asked.
During the contract negotiations with Ash in 2011, some residents expressed similar concerns about the board’s lack of communication with the public, and about decisions being made behind closed doors. Two Lexington residents filed a complaint alleging that the School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law by voting on the contract in executive session. The committee said it had only voted to offer Ash the contract, and did not officially approve the contract behind closed doors.
The state attorney general’s office ruled that the committee’s action had violated the Open Meeting Law.
Dawn McKenna, one of the residents who filed the complaint in 2011, said at Tuesday’s meeting that making decisions about process — in other words, whether to hold a public hearing — in executive session also constituted a violation of the Open Meeting Law.
Like residents, members of the School Committee are split in their opinions about Ash. The committee’s latest annual evaluation of the superintendent shows a wide range of viewpoints, with the final analysis stating that Ash is a strong leader who manages the budget well, but who needs to work on trust, community relations and public relations.
School Committee member Jessie Steigerwald, who along with fellow member Alessandro Alessandrini voted against entering contract negotiations with Ash in December, said she wants to search for a new superintendent.
“I appreciate the contributions he has made during his tenure, and I value his strengths. However, there are areas of persistent concern where I had hoped that our guidance, professional development, and other feedback would lead to a more positive climate and help build trust at all levels of our town’s school system,” Steigerwald said in an e-mail.
But School Committee vice chairwoman Bonnie Brodner said the committee and Ash have successfully steered the district through the economic downturn while managing to lower school fees.
“Dr. Ash is incredibly willing to have conversations when we disagree,” she said. “There are times we’ll disagree in public, but we’ll figure something out that works for everyone.”
The superintendent’s current contract runs through June 2015. The terms state that 18 months before the contract ends — by Jan. 1, 2014 — either the School Committee or Ash could request a change to the contract. If neither party had acted, the contract would have automatically rolled over for another year.
In December, Ash said he wanted a new three-year contract. The school board’s Dec. 19 vote to enter negotiations with Ash on a new contract means the automatic one-year extension did not take place.
Coppe said even if the one-year rollover had gone into effect, the committee and superintendent still would have negotiated salary, sick days and vacation days.
Some residents at the Dec. 19 meeting expressed concern the school district had not posted the superintendent’s contract and evaluation online for easier access.
The evaluation and contract have since been added to the School Committee’s website, and Coppe said members of the public could have requested the information at any time.
She said the committee only recently became aware that the evaluation, which was approved by the board on Aug. 27, hadn’t been posted online.
The debate over Ash’s tenure and the contract negotiations are forming a backdrop for this spring’s town election, in which longtime volunteer Judy Crocker is running against Brodner for the School Committee.
But Crocker, who has a health care and business background, said she’s not running because of qualms with the superintendent. She said she also has an issue with the lack of transparency — such as the district failing to post the contract and evaluation online — but she thinks the issue extends beyond Ash’s administration.
“I think we have transparency issues on other fronts, too. It’s just the way the school system operates,’’ she said, adding that her goal is to make it “more proactive than reactive.”