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Superintendent O'Connor: If Campaigning Rules Were Broken, It was My Fault

Mar 28, 2016 10:34AM ● By Bill Gilman

Dr. John O'Connor, Superintendent of Schools.

Tewksbury Superintendent of Schools Dr. John O'Connor says that if two of the candidates running for School Committee broke school district rules, he is the one to blame.
Attorney Cheryl Garrity, who returned nomination papers to run for School Committee this year and later withdrew from the race, has filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission against O'Connor and School Committee Chair Krissy Polimeno for misusing using their positions and school district resources to influence the outcome of the April 2 Municipal Election, in which Polimeno is a candidate for re-election.
Specifically, Garrity alleges Polimeno and O'Connor knowingly violated the district policy against conducting campaign related activities in school buildings. 
In her complaint, Garrity alleges School Committee candidate Arthy Bennett violated the same district rules and was the beneficiary of rules violations by O'Connor and Polimeno. Campaigning, such as the gathering of signatures on nomination petitions, allegedly took place at youth basketball games and at a Kindergarten Open House.
Bennett has worked as Polimeno's campaign manager in the past and the two have not been shy about their support for each other's candidacies in the upcoming election, as two seats on the committee are up for grabs.
Garrity has been a vocal critic of O'Connor and the School Committee since the controversy over the release of personal information of Special Education students and their parents in December 2014. She is also a strong political ally of School Committee candidate Erin Knyff.
O'Connor said he has not seen a copy of Garrity's complaint but said he takes complete responsibility for any violations of the district rules that may have taken place.
"It's my fault, not the candidates. I gave them bad information," said O'Connor, who will be retiring in June. "I was asked about it and I told them it was OK. I was wrong. So this is my fault."
In response to a public records request by Garrity regarding the alleged violations, O'Connor provided her with a timeline of telephone conversations he had with Polimeno, Bennett and School District Atty. Michael Long. O'Connor said he was first contacted by Polimeno on Jan. 26, when she asked for clarification of School District Rule KHE, "Political Activity in School Buildings and on School Grounds." A second conversation on the same topic took place Feb. 8. It was during this second conversation that O'Connor told Polimeno that when groups such as the Tewksbury Youth Basketball League rented school facilities, it is "up to the tenant to determine the rules of acceptable activity during games or practices."
O'Connor said he had conversations with both Polimeno and Bennett and again informed both that, as he interpreted KHE, non-school activities held on school grounds are under the control of the "tenant" as to allowable political activities.
On Feb. 22, O'Connor was again contacted by Polimeno, who told him that Bennett had been "challenged via email for campaigning on school property" at a recent youth basketball game. In response, O'Connor reached out to Long for an official interpretation of the policy.
On Feb. 24, Long told O'Connor it was his interpretation that "no political activity is to be conducted within any school facility" regardless of who is running the program or renting the facility. O'Connor then conveyed the new information to Polimeno and Bennett that same day.
O'Connor said that neither of the other candidates in the School Committee race, Erin Knyff and Keith Sullivan, had asked for any information regarding policy KHE.
Polimeno declined to comment on the allegations contained within the ethics complain, except to say she had not yet seen a copy of the complaint.
Bennett would only say that she had contacted the School Committee and O'Connor regarding policy KHE and had conducted herself accordingly. She declined further comment, having not seen a copy of the complaint.
Sullivan and Knyff were both asked for comment on the ethics complaint and were asked if if they had ever conducted any campaign related activities on school grounds. Knyff declined comment. Sullivan did not respond to the request for comment.

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