School: 'Semantic incongruity' not an OML violation

A few months ago, the Acton-Boxborough communities were shocked by the announcement of the sudden, totally unexpected resignation of School Superintendent Glenn Brand, effective just six weeks later. Much to the School Committee’s surprise the community was in an uproar, so the School Committee (SC) decided to hold a meeting in the HS auditorium on May 24 to answer questions and concerns from the public.

But the SC leaders lied to the public. Instead of admitting that they forced Dr. Brand to resign under the threat of a bad performance review and unwarranted allegations of 'putting kids at risk,' they told the citizens of Acton and Boxborough that the parting was amicable, and was based on philosophical and operational differences of opinion. They then tried to convince the public that it just needed to understand the SC's operational philosophies because that was what was important. All sorts of theories were spun up. The one most popular was that perhaps Brand disagreed with school choice and that made him expendable.

That perhaps Dr. Brand had done nothing wrong was hinted at by the admission that he was going to receive his full salary for an entire year for not working, so it was clear something was amiss, but nobody could guess what it was. The secrecy of executive sessions was used by the SC to hide their abrupt and wrongful termination of Dr. Brand from the public, wasting over $200,000 in taxpayers' funds. Hiding their wrongdoing was the reason for the secrecy, plain and simple.

Since the ringleaders and the enablers on the SC who allowed this travesty to happen expected that nobody beside themselves would ever know what really happened, the leaders felt they could safely lie their way out of the predicament they created. They repeatedly refused to explain anything, to answer the most basic questions about the alleged “philosophical differences,” claiming that they were prevented from answering the questions by the Separation Agreement with Dr. Brand (which they negotiated, of course.) For good measure, they had an attorney from their law firm, Ropes & Grey, providing the typical legal smokescreen. They knew -– or thought that they knew -- that members of the public really had no choice but to accept that Dr. Brand was leaving and that they would never know what really happened. This deliberate misinformation campaign achieved its desired result...the public was forced to move on to debate the options for finding a replacement Superintendent and it seemed that nobody outside of those directly involved would ever know what really happened.

These plans and their underlying falsehoods were completely shattered by the publication of the unredacted executive session minutes by Acton Forum. To read the unredacted executive session minutes, here is a link to our original article: http://www.actonforum.com/story/unredacted-executive-session-minutes-show-how-former-superintendent-glenn-brand-was-pressured-

When Acton Forum published these minutes, all the responsible parties should have resigned, not just because their mistreatment of Dr. Brand was exposed, or for their responsibility for an unnecessary settlement of $200,000 plus a huge legal bill, but also for the blatant falsehoods and lies told to the public as part of their coverup. These lies were contained both in the community statements sent out announcing Dr. Brand's departure, as well as in the meeting held to explain themselves.

Acton Forum filed an Open Meeting Law (OML) complaint with the School Committee about their first executive session on April 26 in which the plot was sprung on Dr. Brand. The School's attorney responded to our OML complaint with a denial that the law was violated. Acton Forum decided not to appeal, because now that we know what really happened, we believe the executive session was in fact justified. While it may be unpleasant and underhanded, it is legal to hold a secret meeting to discuss discipline and dismissal, even though Brand had another full year on his contract and the accusations against him were just pretexts by the ringleaders to force his resignation. The ones who should have objected to this abuse of the relationship between the School Committee and the Superintendent were the members of the SC who weren't in on the conspiracy, but they did nothing.

The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to force public boards and committees to conduct their business "in the open” as much as possible, to prevent secret deals, to give the public a better picture of what their elected representatives are doing. Surely, lying to the public about the reasons for an executive session and what happened in them should be wrong and illegal, but the School's lawyer argues that lying to the public is not a violation of the Open Meeting Law.

In an email from School lawyer Peter Ebb in August (see the link to the letter here: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/P_Ebb_08212017.pdf ), Ebb says that "semantic" differences between what happened in executive session and public statements describing those actions are not OML violations. "[The Open Meeting Law] nowhere purports to create a test of semantic congruity between those minutes and subsequent statements concerning decisions that were lawfully reached." Attorney Ebb is doing the job that he gets paid to do (by the A-B taxpayers), and we believe he is correct, the OML does not require “semantic congruity.” In other words, it is not an Open Meeting Law violation to lie about what happened. But it is certainly unethical and unworthy of those who wish to represent us in governing our school system, who, above all else, should set an example of honesty and integrity for the children in our communities.

For their leadership roles in removing Dr. Brand, and for lying about it to hundreds of members of the public, and for putting out a false statement as to the reasons for Dr. Brand's departure, School Committee members Mary Brolin and Amy Krishnamurthy must resign.

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