Amherst officials fight bid to discuss, possibly 'disavow' Shabazz memo; Regional School Committee to take up issue today in Pelham anyway

Monday, July 14, 2014
AMHERST — In a tug-of-war that has enmeshed town clerks in four towns, the vice chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee is pressing ahead with a Monday meeting to discuss a controversial reprimand of a fellow board member — despite the chairman’s efforts to cancel it.

Trevor Baptiste’s attempts to post the meeting in the towns that make up the Amherst-Pelham Regional School district — Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury — were undermined Wednesday by chairman Lawrence O’Brien, who sent an email to the four town clerks saying that the meeting posting was an error and that it should be removed.

Only Amherst acquiesced and labeled the meeting “canceled” on its website, and then declined to repost it when asked to do so by Baptiste.

“Our town counsel advised us not to,” said Assistant Town Clerk Susan Audette, who asked for the legal opinion after finding herself in the middle of the dispute.

Baptiste called the meeting after learning that O’Brien and the chairmen of the two other School Committees that govern the schools in the Amherst district sent a memo to Amilcar Shabazz last week chastising him for referring to an unnamed student as a racist during a public meeting. They also sent a letter of apology to the student’s parents.

Baptiste questioned the chairmen’s right to take such action without getting their full boards’ consent at an open meeting. He has listed the agenda for his Monday meeting as “statement on School Equity Task Force controversy (vote) adjournment.”

It is to take place in the Pelham Library at 4 p.m.

Amherst Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the town’s attorney advised the town clerk’s office to defer to the Regional School Committee’s policy, available on the school department’s website. That policy states that agenda items be presented to the superintendent of schools or the committee chairman 48 in advance of a meeting for posting.

“That’s the level of involvement from the town’s standpoint, so that’s why the posting was removed,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. Ziomek is filling in for Town Manager John Musante, who was out of the office.

Leslie Bracebridge, Shutesbury’s town clerk, took a different tact. After receiving Baptiste’s and O’Brien’s dueling requests, she consulted with Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office and decided to list the meeting on the town’s website.

“The Open Meeting Law is silent on who has the authority to post meetings,” Bracebridge said she was told. That, coupled with the fact that it is illegal for municipal committee members to meet without notifying the public, persuaded her to go ahead.

“I have no authority to refuse to post a meeting,” she said Friday. “I will leave it up to the committee members to work out among themselves whether or not to attend or participate. I don’t need that on my shoulders.”

According to the attorney general’s office, it is up to each public body to decide how to schedule its meetings.

The Gazette was unable to reach the town clerks from Pelham or Leverett, but as of Friday afternoon, Monday’s meeting was posted in both towns.

Baptiste said he is attempting to get a quorum for the session. “I’m expecting that I will, but we’ll see.” He declined to discuss the issue further.

O’Brien’s views

In response to questions from the Gazette, O’Brien said in an email late Friday that he continues to believe the memo to Shabazz was justified.

He said it is his understanding that the agenda for the Monday meeting is to discuss and vote on a motion that the panel “disavow” the July 3 memo and express its support for the task force Shabazz leads.

O’Brien reiterated his view that Shabazz’s statements at the June 18 task force meeting were “profoundly harmful.” While O’Brien said he would be willing to sign a statement expressing support for the task force, as well as Shabazz’s leadership of it, he believes any step to disavow the memo “would be like saying that when a public official expresses harmful and inaccurate information about our students it’s of little consequence to the community.”

He added, “I am convinced that our memorandum has brought some measure of justice to the children in our school district who were harmed by Professor Shabazz’s statements ....”

O’Brien also said he believes the memo provided “a significant amount of legal and financial protection that has arisen from Professor Shabazz’s comments ... that risked violating both federal and state privacy rights of those same students.”

He said legal advice given the regional committee indicates that if it withdraws its memo, the action “would re-expose our district and individual committee member to significant legal liability. If we are to be good stewards of the public monies, this would be a very dangerous action to take.”

First request

Audette said she first received the request to post the meeting from Baptiste around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. About 15 minutes later, she said, she received a call from Debbie Westmoreland, assistant to Amherst Superintendent Maria Geryk, who usually sends the town meeting notices. Audette said Westmoreland told her the meeting was posted in error. An hour after that, Audette said, she received an email from O’Brien repeating that the meeting was posted in error adding, “please cancel it.”

Later, she said, Baptiste called and asked that it be reposted. It was then that she decided to ask for guidance from the town’s legal counsel, Kopelman and Paige of Boston.

“We’re not going to go back and forth, back and forth. I said I wanted to get a second opinion.” The town’s attorney, she said, considered the issue more of a parliamentary procedure than law. While the Open Meeting Law does not specifically say who has the authority to direct a town clerk to post a meeting, it does make reference to the chair setting the agenda, as does the Regional School Committee’s policy.

Seeking explanation

In an interview earlier this week, Baptiste told the Gazette that he wanted to call the meeting to get O’Brien to explain his actions. And, he said, he wanted a quorum of the School Committee to decide how to handle the remarks made by Shabazz June 18 at a meeting of the Equity Task Force which Shabazz chairs.

In describing the attack of a white middle school student by three middle school students of color, which occurred in the spring, Shabazz is said to have referred to the victim as a racist. The memo said to Shabazz said that an investigation by school officials uncovered no evidence that the victim of the assault was racist. The three chairmen said the incident was widely known in the school community and Shabazz’s reference was harmful to the student.

The attack was not reported to police, who found out about it last week after the memo was sent to Shabazz. Police said school officials deferred to the victim’s parents’ wishes in not contacting them, even though school leaders said the student was “aggressively and seriously assaulted.”

Baptiste said Wednesday he believed it was proper for him to seek and post a meeting to discuss the controversy under the directives of the state’s Open Meeting Law, which makes it clear he cannot discuss an issue with fellow board members without public notification. “I can’t call up four members and go to their house and deliberate unless I call the clerk and invite the public. And that’s what I’m doing,” he said.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.