Committee’s Email Likely Violated Open Meeting Law And Superintendent’s Contact
The Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Union 26 (U26) school committee (henceforth referred to collectively as SC) met in executive session on August 17 to discuss a possible severance agreement for School Superintendent Mike Morris. The specific purpose of the meeting was not announced in advance. It was revealed on August 18 that the purpose of that executive session was to negotiate a severance agreement with Morris. The RSC voted 6-3 to adopt the proposed agreement and U26 approved it 4-2. The minutes of the deliberations about the agreement were released to the public on August 23. They indicate that the discussion of the terms was contentious. The full severance agreement can be found here.
At the August 18 executive session, U26 Chair Peter Demling and RSC Chair Ben Herrington presented a proposal for a mutual separation agreement, drawn up by Morris’ attorney, Michael J. Long, that would result in a mutual, non-contentious parting of the ways of the Amherst Regional School District (ARPS) and Morris.
Morris indicated that the current situation had become untenable for himself and the district. He shared that the current tone and tenor was not sustainable or healthy for anyone, and he felt even if thorough investigation reports were to clear him of wrongdoing (which he was confident they would), the results would not be accepted by all. Demling shared a quote from Morris that explained his desire to separate as amicably as possible so that the negative effect on the ARPS community and students would be minimized. Morris described that going into the school year with the current level of uncertainty would be a distraction that would keep attention off kids. He felt the 4e section of his contract was added in the last contract update specifically to avoid protracted and openly contentious separations. He said he was not interested in participating in a legal battle.
Demling indicated that there was not a lot of room to negotiate terms and that if the agreement was not accepted, and on that evening, then the separation could become contentious and could result in litigation against the school district. Long had informed Demling and Herrington that an email from RSC member Anna Heard to the rest of the members of the RSC (see below and here) proposing that Morris be put on probation rather than on administrative leave (which had been widely demanded by the public) violated both open meeting law and Morris’ contract, creating the possibility of litigation against the school district. Heard suggested that probation would recognize that Morris had been accused of wrongdoing while allowing him to continue to do his work. Committee counsel Mark Terry acknowledged the violation but did not think it posed a significant litigation liability.
After considerable discussion, the SC agreed to the following terms (see the complete text of the severance agreement here).
1.Morris’ last day in the office would be Monday, August 21; his last day of employment would be August 31. He was willing to assist with transition (including employee terminations resulting from the Title IX investigation and other duties of the superintendent). Doug Slaughter was unavailable until August 28 so Morris staying on until August 31 would help with that transition if the committees were considering Slaughter as an option.
3. Compensation of 10 month’s severance, totaling $137,373.80 paid out over 10 months, plus payout for 54 vacation days, and payment of health insurance premiums until Morris takes another job or for a maximum of one year.
4. A non disparagement clause that prohibits Morris and the School Committee from making “critical, disparaging, or otherwise detrimental comments to any person or entity concerning the other or the circumstances surrounding (Morris’) employment and or separation for employment from the Districts…” However, the agreement does not prohibit the committees from “providing truthful testimony to any government agency or representative, or from making any truthful disclosures required, authorized or permitted under law…”
5. A mutual release of liability.
6. A joint positive, public statement from Morris and the School Committees. The final statement from the SC agreed upon by both parties read:
“The Union #26 and Regional School Committees and Mike Morris have reached a mutual agreement to part ways, ending Dr. Morris’ seven year tenure in the role of Superintendent. This change in leadership is not due to any wrongdoing on Mike’s part.
The last seven years have seen many successes in our three school districts, such as the creation of the Caminantes Dual Language Program and success of the current School Building Project in the Amherst Public Schools; the stabilization of a dire budget situation and increased student enrollment in Pelham; the effective change in start times to align with research for Regional School students; and increased diversity of staff across all districts.
The Committees wish him well in the future. Mike appreciates the support he has received from the Committees and the many staff and community members who have reached out to him over the past several months. He will remain available to assist the district in any way requested by his successor.”
The final vote of the RSC was 6-3 with Irv Rhodes, Jennifer Shiao, and Tom Fanning voting no. The U26 vote was 4-2 with Rhodes and Fanning voting no. Misgivings were voiced by most members of the SC. Several who voted in favor of the agreement concluded that they could see no better options and highlighted that in spite of their concerns, it was important to reach a quick and amicable separation. Rhodes strongly disagreed with the decision, noting that he felt that the agreement was forced upon the SC and that they were not offered an opportunity to formulate reasonable alternatives.
Frustration With Limited Options
Members of the committee voiced concerns about the cost of the severance, the text of the positive joint statement, and the non-disparagement clause prohibiting them from acknowledging results of ongoing investigations that might show wrongdoing by Morris. Rhodes and Shiao expressed concern that the SC was not being given much room or time to consider alternatives. Fanning said that if the SC agreed to the separation terms before they really understood what they were signing, then they would be saying that student safety is less important than a separation agreement with a staff member.
McDonald and Heard asked what would happen if the SC said no to the proposed agreement.
Demling summarized the discussions between himself, Morris, and Herrington, when Morris indicated he wasn’t interested in prolonged negotiation over this agreement and worried that there could be a prolonged and contentious public and legal conflict to reach a separation otherwise. Terry said that he did not see a significant risk of liability to the committees from the allegations Morris’s attorney had made. He said they showed some indication of how Morris’s attorney might try to discredit the committees if an immediate agreement was not reached. Demling, however, emphasized a risk of litigation if an agreement was not reached quickly.
Tilman Wolf stated that a benefit of the proposed agreement would be the quickness of it. Sarah Hall concurred (as did, eventually, everyone voting in the affirmative), saying that she thought it was the best option to move forward so that the SC could focus on the work that needs to be done.
Shiao shared her opinion that if the superintendent wants to leave that’s one thing, but that she disagreed with paying him to do so. She also objected to the non-disparagement clause. She made a motion (to the RSC) to reduce Morris’s payout to one month’s salary and it was defeated 1-8.
Demling urged the committee to approve the agreement, saying that approving it right away was the best option, the least expensive and the least obstructive to the community and students. He brought up the idea to change 12 months’ severance pay to 10 months, agreed with paying health insurance only until Morris gets a new job, and was amenable to edits of the joint public statement
Rhodes strongly objected to adopting the agreement prior to receiving any written results from the full Title IX report. He asked, “How is it possible for the committee to commit to a payment to Morris without the full written report in hand?” He advised the committee to wait until the full report has been received and reviewed before making a decision.
Shiao concurred, but said she would support a separation agreement that removed the non-disparagement clause and included one month’s pay. She said, “If we’re going to give Morris 10 or 12 months’ pay, then he ought to stay and do his job, and make amends.”
But Demling returned to the idea that a protracted legal dispute in public would have “a significant negative effect to the district”.
Wolf mentioned that in order to attract a new superintendent, a separation agreement like the one being considered “would show the committee as being reasonable and make us able to attract a new superintendent.” Demling, too, stated that how we handle this will be a message to future superintendents.
McDonald objected to removing language from the agreement stating that the separation was not as a result of any wrongdoing on Morris’ behalf. She asserted that this separation is not due to any wrongdoing and that even If wrongdoing is found, that is not the reason for the separation. While she recognized that it could feel awkward, she wanted to keep it in.
Open Meeting Law Violation Gave Morris Leverage
In presenting Morris’ proposed severance agreement, Morris’s attorney conveyed to the committee that the email from Heard had complicated the separation and exposed the district to possible litigation.
Heard said that she had intended for it to go only to the SC chairs (which would not have violated OML) but hit “reply all” by mistake. Either way, according to Long, the email would have violated Morris’s contract. The committee did not dispute that Heard’s email violated open meeting law or Morris’s contract.
Dave Eisenstadter reported in MassLive:
“Heard said (in her email) that removing Morris ‘stirs up a whole new can of worms,’ but implied that the ongoing investigations may not provide conclusive results related to Morris. She wrote that the committee needed to respond to accusations against Morris in the community.
“The state’s Open Meeting Law exists in part to ensure that public bodies like city councils and school committees discuss matters within their purview in a manner accessible to the public. Guidance on the Open Meeting Law from the Attorney General’s office explicitly forbids the use of email for expressing opinions among the majority of a group of committee members — known as a quorum…. Morris’s contract states that deliberations over his termination must be conducted in executive session and that the superintendent must be provided notice of the meeting as indicated under the Open Meeting Law.” (Read the full Masslive report here.)
Within a few days of the vote to adopt the Morris severance agreement, Demling, McDonald, and Herrington all resigned from the Amherst School Committee and Pelham School Committee Chair Sarah Hall resigned from the Pelham School Committee, all citing the toxic politics in Amherst including personal attacks on SC members interfering with their abilities to do their jobs as their primary reason for leaving. Demling also blamed those toxic politics for forcing Morris to resign.
Heard’s full email to the Amherst Regional School Committee members, obtained through a public records request by MassLive, is published below:
I would request an agenda item relating to the Superintendent. I realize we are waiting for the Title IX and other investigation reports, but given the accusations, I would like to consider putting the superintendent on some kind of probation–to ensure that we can monitor his responsiveness to complaints of bullying and bias (of any kind). This is different from administrative leave. I do believe that removing the superintendent stirs up a whole new can of worms, but unless the Title IX and other investigations determines that the superintendent deserves to be fired or, is completely excused, the accusations warrant further attention, and no action at all, completely ignoring any lack of action, without any consequences at all, is untenable. I’m not sure if it is possible to discuss this in executive session.
I also second Tom Fanning’s request to put Turf back on the table, given the likely increase in cost and the extreme variance in turf costs depending on which version you get. I’d like to suggest that we put all options back on the table to get a more accurate assessment of how much each will cost and what it will take to maintain the field(s) and how much playing time would actually be affected.
I’m not sure how much the school committee has to say about curriculum, but I’d like to see if there is any way to adjust the foreign language curriculum in the middle school, which is currently one semester, and is no way to learn a language.
I’m also not sure where the busing schedule is addressed. But I’m hoping that this year will not start the same as last year.
I fully understand that you cannot get everything on the next meeting’s agenda, but you asked for suggestions. 🙂