Tewksbury Attorney Files Complaint Against School District With Secretary Of State
Atty. Cheryl Garrity, a mother of two children in the Tewksbury Public Schools, filed a request with Superintendent of Schools Dr. John O'Connor for documents, emails and texts related to the resignation of Lisa Puccia and the selection of her replacement, as well as the leaking of Special Education Students private information on the school district web site, and published in a School Committee handout over the winter.
Some of the same information was also included in information sent to the parents of Trahan School students later in the year.
Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found the district to be not in compliance with student privacy regulations and ordered district personnel to go through a re-training program prior to the start of the 2015-16 school year.
In response to Garrity's request, O'Connor provided her with scores of documents relating to the events that took place from the start of January through the end of April, mostly from his school department e-mail account. Relevant material included emails from O'Connor to school department officials and school committee members and emails he, in turn, received from them.
However, O'connor admits he didn't supply Garrity with everything she requested.
"(Atty. Garrity's) request was fairly extensive and was based on a specific time period," said O'Connor. "We supplied her with all the public documents. I did not provide the attorney with personal emails from the school committee members' email accounts."
And that is the crux of Garrity's complaint with the Secretary of State's Office. Because committee member had been using personal email accounts to conduct school department business, she believes that opens those accounts fully to the Public Records Request laws. She feels text messages exchanged between school committee members or regarding school district business are also fair game.
O'Connor and School Committee Chairman Krissy Polimeno believe the district has fully complied with the law and plan to fight the allegations through the school department's attorney.
"We're not going to have a comment on this right now. It's in the hands of the lawyers," said Polimeno. "We don't have anything to hide and if we are ordered to turn over those (personal texts and) emails we will."
According to O'Connor, school committee members have always had access to school district email accounts assigned to them. However, because the district's old server was "cumbersome", the members had chosen to use their private accounts for school business. Those private email addresses were published on the school department web site as contact information for the members.
This practice recently changed, said O'Connor, when the district switched over to Google. Now each of the committee members uses a school district account.
According to State Law, the school department is allowed to bill a person making a Public Records Request for the time and supplies needed to comply. But it is also required to use the lowest paid employee on staff to complete the task. Garrity claims the School District initially tried to charge her $1,100 for the work but ultimately dropped the fee down to $150.
While Garrity's children are not Special Education students, she does sit on the Board of Liam Nation and said the circumstances surrounding the information leaks, as well as a so-called "Rating System" gauging how co-operative each SpEd parent was, raised several concerns with her.
"It got my attention," said Garrity. "Part of it is because public interest law and constitutional law is a hobby of mine. But also because I've heard complaints about people in the town being apathetic and not getting involved because they feel so many decisions are being made (behind closed doors) in advance of the public meetings."
Garrity said she believes the documents she requested will prove the School Committee and superintendent are violating the State's Open Meeting Law. She plans to file a complaint with Attorney General Maura Healy alleging those violations.
"I believe business is being done and decisions are being made outside open meeting," said Garrity. "And because they are doing it behind the scenes, they feel empowered. They feel like they can do what they want."
Another specific concern Garrity has with the workings of the school committee has to do with its relationship with O'Connor. She claims that included in his weekly updates with the committee and additional communications, are comments indicating how he wants the committee to proceed or vote on specific items of business.
"I think even his weekly updates are violations of the Open Meeting Law," said Garrity. "And he sends out little comments to influence votes. (Committee members) are supposed to be his employer. It's the tail wagging the dog."
Garrity said she plans to wait until the Secretary of State hands down his ruling on the private emails and texts before she files her complaint with the attorney general. She says she presently has evidence of open meeting law violations but believes the private emails and texts would bolster her case.
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