Skip to main content

Your Tewksbury Today

O'Connor: We Provided More Than 2,000 Pages Of Records

Aug 18, 2015 04:22PM ● By Bill Gilman

Some of the phone records of Superintendent of Schools John O'Connor released as the result of a Public Records Request

(Editor's note and clarification: The following story has been edited and corrected for the sake of clarification on Aug. 19, 12:17 p.m. Erin Knyff is not an official special education advocate but rather a concerned special education parent. In addition, language has been added to clarify that Liam Nation is not involved in anyway with the Public Records Request of Atty. Cheryl Garrity or with her complaint filed with the state. Your Tewksbury Today apologizes for any confusion or inconvenience this may have caused.)

Tewksbury School Superintendent John O'Connor and his staff spent close to 30 man-hours gathering documents needed to fulfill a Public Records Request from Tewksbury Attorney Cheryl Garrity.
Because of this, O'Connor is bothered that Garrity filed a complaint last month with the Secretary of State's office, alleging non-compliance with the request.
"I painstakingly went through all of the phone (records) and texts, redacting the personal ones. That probably took me about 10 hours," said O'Connor. "We could not have been more transparent," said O'Connor. "I had my people downstairs grab every email. In all we provided more than 2,000 pages of records."
Included in Garrity's written request, made to O'Connor, were emails, meeting minutes, text messages, phone logs and "any other forms of communication" from the superintendent and school committee members relating to former School Committee member Lisa Puccia's resignation, the filling of the vacancy left by Puccia's resignation, the leak of private information of 83 out of district placement special education students, the "cooperativeness ranking" of the parents or guardians of those students and the costs or budget of special education in general.
Garrity also requested communications and documents from the board of selectmen, as well as O'Connor and the school committee, regarding five of the seven candidates for the vacant school committee seat, special education parent Erin Knyff and Attorney Robert Crabtree, a lawyer who has been working with local special education parents.
The records request covered a five-month period through December 2014 through May 2015. 
Thousands of pages of documents and records were delivered to Garrity in June. However, not included among the documents were emails from the school committee members' private e-mail accounts (which were used for school department business until recently) and texts and phone records from their private phones.
This is what prompted Garrity's complaint to the Secretary of State.
In a Letter to the Editor submitted to Your Tewksbury Today, Atty. Michael Long, counsel for the Tewksbury School Committee, called the issue of texts and personal e-mails as public records a legal gray area and, according to O'Connor, committee members were acting on Long's advice by not producing those documents.
"Many of the items requested by the attorney are not clearly or unequivocally within the definition of public records under relevant law. Attorney Garrity sought literally thousands of individual communications from the personal cell phones of School Committee members and the Superintendent," wrote Long. "While public figures and public officials surrender much of their privacy while they serve, it is not all clear or undisputed in the legal community as to whether public figures and public officials must surrender their personal cellphone for examination in response to a fishing expedition conveniently labeled as a “public records” request."
An already shaky relationship between the school department administration and a special education parents deteriorated further, starting in December, with a letter sent home to parents in December, in which O'Connor connected a decision to delay implementation of free all-day kindergarten with a $1.8 million budget shortfall, fueled largely by a sharp increase in SpEd costs and specifically, by an unexpected influx of a dozen out of district placement SpEd students.
O'Connor issued public and private apologies for the way in which he phrased the letter and for offending the SpEd parents. Those embers of anger were stirred again in March with the leak of private information of out of district placement SpEd students and a column that appeared to rank out of district placement SpEd parents by their level of cooperativeness.
O'Connor said the ratings were never meant to judge the cooperation of parents but rather the likelihood  that a child might be able to receive services within the district.
O'Connor blames himself for a miscommunication with Student Services Director Richard Pelletier, who created the rating column.
O'Connor also accepts responsibility for the leak of the personal information, which had been compiled to help the town manager and Finance Committee better understand the causes of the budget shortfall and why SpEd costs were as high as they were.
"It's absolutely my fault that the document was included (in public information)," he said. "I should have checked the documents and I didn't."
Garrity said the information leak, coupled with concerns over the resignation of SpEd parent Lisa Puccia from the school committee and the process for choosing Puccia's interim replacement is what prompted her Public Records Request.
While Garrity, herself, is not the parent of a special needs student, she is friends with several SpEd parents and serves on the Board of Director of Liam Nation, alongside Knyff. Liam Nation, which provides several athletics programs to local special needs children, is not involved in any way with Garrity's Public Records Request or complaint to the state.
O'Connor caught flak again earlier this month, when one of the emails made public due to Garrity's PRR seemed to indicate the superintendent and Pelletier were celebrating the fact that an out of district placement SpEd student was moving out of the district and thus saving the district $70,000.
O'Connor said the email in question was sent at a time when he was wrestling with the budget shortfall and that he was communicating with school committee members in his capacity as "CEO" of the school district, one of many different responsibilities he has as superintendent.
"I wear many different hats and have to speak differently to many different audiences," he said, referring to differences in tone and language he might use speaking with other education professionals, the school committee, parents and students.
"We never celebrate a child leaving the district," he said.
O'Connor said plans are being made to improve communication and directly address the concerns of SpEd parents, as well as all parents in the district. One of the first actions being planned is a sit-down meeting with the 83 out of district placement SpEd parents whose children's information was leaked. 
Overall, O'Connor said he is proud of the strides the Tewksbury Public Schools have made in Special Education services during his five-year tenure as superintendent.
"If you look at where we were five years ago and where we are now, we have done tremendous things with Special Education," he said. "We've added staff, programs, case managers."

Follow us on Facebook at Follow us on Twitter at @TewksburyToday Follow us on Instagram at YourTewksburyToday