Majority of Amherst Regional School Committee reaffirms legality of controversial July 14 meeting

Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2014
AMHERST — The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee will send a letter to an Amherst man who challenged a meeting it held in July, saying the session was widely publicized in keeping with the spirit of the state Open Meeting Law and thus was held legally despite objections raised by the board’s former chairman. A copy of the letter also will go to the state attorney general’s office.

The July 14 meeting was called by Trevor Baptiste, who was then vice chairman of the board, to discuss a memo chastising another member. The memo was sent by Lawrence O’Brien, who was then chairman of the regional board, Catherine Appy, chairwoman of the Amherst School Committee, and Darius Modestow, chairman of the Pelham School Committee. Baptiste objected to the three taking that action without consulting with the rest of the regional school committee and thus asked for a meeting to discuss the issue. When O’Brien refused, he went ahead and scheduled the session, which drew five members of the nine-person board.

The complaint was filed by Thomas Flittie, who claimed the meeting was illegal because it was posted in just three of the four towns served by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee. Baptiste tried to post the meeting in all four towns but O’Brien contacted the town clerks and asked them to take the posting down because he was the only one authorized to call a meeting. On the advice of the town’s legal counsel, the assistant town clerk in Amherst labeled the meeting, which was already listed on the town website, as canceled.

With two members absent Tuesday, the board voted 5-2 to send the letter written by Trevor Baptiste, who has since been voted to chair the committee. O’Brien and Appy voted against it, still insisting that the session was illegal because it was not called by O’Brien and hence a violation of the school board’s own policy.

At the meeting July 14 those present voted to disavow the process that led to the three chairmen sending a memo reprimanding regional school board member Amilcar Shabazz for comments he made at a meeting of the Schools Equity Task Force, which he chairs. Shabazz allegedly referred to a middle school boy who was beaten up by other students as racist. School officials have said that there was no evidence that the student was racist and Shabazz has apologized. He said his description of the incident was misunderstood

Sarah Dolven, a representative from Leverett, said Tuesday that she did not attend the July 14 meeting because she was worried about its legality but felt the session, which drew about 50 community members and was videotaped by Amherst Media, had a positive effect. She and member Daniel Robb of Pelham, who did attend, both said they felt the meeting was widely publicized in various ways despite the cancellation notice in Amherst.

“Whether it was technically legal or not, Mr. Baptiste did his very best to publicize it was much as possible,” Dolven said.

The letter defending the session, which Baptiste wrote, will be sent to Flittie and the attorney general’s office. The mailing will also include the Amherst town counsel’s opinion that the July 14 meeting should not have been held and the school committee’s policy stating the role of the chairman in calling a meeting.

Flittie, who was invited to the meeting, did not attend.

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