In a special public meeting of the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) on Wednesday January 20, 2-16 in the Manchester School District Headquarters, board members were refreshed on their roles in personnel matters by Attorney Matthew Upton from the law firm of Drummond Woodsum. This meeting also allowed the BOSC to raise questions and their own grievances for the information flow, confidentiality, and the timeliness of investigative reports that may affect their decisions in personnel cases. With a calm and confident tone, Mr. Upton answered all of the Board members’ questions and gave a rather compelling presentation, as compelling a presentation can be on such legal matters.
Essentially, the BOSC’s role is to adopt policies regarding the recruitment, employment, evaluation, and dismissal of teachers and other district employees, hire and annually evaluate the superintendent of schools, elect staff members nominated by the superintendent, create policies prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination, hear grievances, and listen to appeals of tenured teachers in the non-renewal process. Acting as a quasi-jury in these matters, the Board is also expected to avoid prejudgment, bias, and any ex parte communications (a Latin term meaning without party which, in this case, refers to speaking about the case without both the union and the superintendent present.)
In regards to speaking with their constituents about personnel matters, Board members should not attempt to discuss any details of cases by any means and, as a default response, should say that the superintendent has been notified and is working on it. This is not for the purpose of withholding information from the public, but for the avoidance of any liabilities for Board members and avoiding prejudgment and bias accusations that could result in an invalidation of the full board vote on the case. Invalidating the vote causes the case to be reopened and reevaluated during which time the employee in question would receive back pay on paid leave of absence. This prompted Mr. Upton to repeatedly mention, what may be his favorite phrase, “process is cheap; back pay is expensive.”
Board member questions began when Mr. Upton started discussing the information they could speak with their constituents about, each other about, and if they could speak about a case if presented in the media. Board Vice Chair Arthur Beaudry (Ward 9) expressed frustration on hearing about personnel issues in the newspaper without being notified, non-publicly, that there was an issue. He furthered his thought by saying sometimes an employee has been put on paid administrative leave and the Board has not been notified before the media presents the story to the public. Essentially, Beaudry would like the Board to know what is happening to personnel before the public knows.
Possibly the greatest complaint from the majority of Board members regarded the amount of time they have had to review the full case documents in previous periods – they wanted to know how to change the arrangement. According to Beaudry, “the concern is at the hearing when we get two inches of paperwork and trying to hear the testimony at the same time. We should get that early enough so we can look at the information and prepare some questions.” Committee member Mary Georges (Ward 3) also expressed concern for this process of receiving the material the moment of the hearing and that she would want time to read, review, and understand the material. Upton stated that the Board could do two things in these instances: they could ask for a few moments to glance through it or they could end the hearing there and postpone it for ten school days due to collective bargaining agreement.
According to Upton, the Board would have reports on their desk on the Wednesday before the hearing from them, but the superintendent’s office must wait for the opposing council of the union to release their documents. Typically, the evidence, in these personnel cases, from the superintendent are document and fact based and do not require as much time to prepare as the union faces with gathering witnesses and character testimonies. Another reason for the timing of the investigation reports is due to the union worrying that the Board members would develop a bias over the weekend they had the report. In the end, Upton very willingly agreed to express the opinion of the Board to both his colleagues and the union in hopes that this process will change.
For more information and details on the meeting, please visit our live blog of the meeting. Manchester Public TV filmed the meeting and it will be available soon to watch online, they anticipate uploading the video by Friday, January 22 at the latest.