What has been described as an Open Meeting Law (OML) violation by a member of the Amherst Regional School Committee (RSC) has received attention recently. However, another email that has raised OML concerns was sent one month earlier by former RSC Chair Ben Herrington but has remained out of the public eye and unaddressed by the committee for nearly two months.
In August, Anna Heard, a new RSC member elected in June 2023, stated that she mistakenly hit “reply all” in response to an email from then Chair Herrington asking for input from members about future agenda items. Within an hour, former RSC member Allison McDonald also replied to the full committee expressing her concern that Heard’s email was an OML violation because Heard stated opinions on matters over which the committee has jurisdiction.
A remedy recommended by the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General is as follows:
“If a public body acknowledges it did or may have deliberated outside of a posted meeting, our recommendation is to acknowledge the correspondence during the next posted meeting, and either read the email aloud during the meeting or explain that the email was sent and then attach it to the minutes for that meeting. This way, a communication that should have been reserved for a posted meeting becomes public.” According to minutes released on August 23, this violation was noted during the August 18 RSC executive session by School Superintendent Mike Morris’ lawyer, although Morris was not addressed on the email that was sent to “RegionalSchoolCommittee@arps.org”. Contacted by the press, Heard acknowledged that she inadvertently hit “reply all” instead of “reply”.
According to emails obtained via records request, Herrington’s email has been handled differently. Herrington, who had been serving on the committee for four years, sent an email on July 14 to the entire committee specifically offering his opinion on a matter within their jurisdiction. He stated that “…it is my opinion that placing Dr. Morris on administrative leave would not be the most appropriate act right now, nor would it be the best course of action for the district as a whole. I recognize that there is significant pressure to do so and that my opinion does not constitute the opinion or direction of this body.” He went on to say “I want to be clear that simply posting and conducting a meeting in executive session to discuss placing the superintendent on administrative leave would send the message, publicly, that we may not support his return, regardless of the outcome of that discussion. And, there could be potentially negative repercussions as a result. I am not saying this to sway the conversation one way or another, but rather to ensure that I have informed this body of the possibility that our actions could cause further turmoil in the district and disrupt operations for some time. That may be necessary, it also may be foolish of us to do.”
Fellow RSC member Jennifer Shiao emailed Herrington directly a few days later, stating “I am concerned that the Regional School Committee is in violation of the Open Meeting Law, due to the email below in which you shared your opinion with the whole committee on whether or not to put the superintendent on administrative leave.” She concluded that “To be a committee with integrity, we need to acknowledge this violation to the public as soon as possible. I would be happy to help however I can.”
Herrington replied nearly a full week later, on July 24, that he had discussed the matter with Marc Terry, the attorney for the school district and the School Committee, and that he would address it at the next RSC meeting. Since that email exchange, the RSC has met three times, including Herrington’s final meeting on August 17 just prior to his resignation effective August 21, but the email and OML concern has never been mentioned or addressed. There had also been multiple calls by the public for the RSC to call a meeting during this interim period. Although he has made several public statements since his resignation, Herrington has not acknowledged the concerns around OML or the implications of the substance of the email. The full text of Herrington’s email can be found further below.
Herrington emails full RSC expressing his opinions about whether the RSC should meet and whether to place Superintendent Morris on leave
Shiao emails Herrington expressing OML concerns about his email
Herrington emails Shiao stating that he had discussed the matter with attorney Marc Terry and would address it at the next RSC meeting
~8/14 – 8/17
Herrington, Demling, and Morris meet to discuss Morris’ resignation
Herrington sends his resignation letter (effective 8/21) to McDonald (Chair of Amherst School Committee). It is unclear whether Herrington’s resignation letter was sent before or after the RSC meeting that same day.
RSC meets to discuss and approve Morris’s separation agreement. No mention is made of Herrington’s email re: OML violation.
Town Manager emails Amherst Town Councilors to notify them of Herrington’s resignation
Herrington emails RSC to notify them of his resignation (four days after notifying the McDonald and two days after Town Councilors have been notified by Town Manager)
RSC meets. No mention is made of Herrington’s email re: OML violation.
RSC meets. No mention is made of Herrington’s email re: OML violation.
Text Of Herrington’s Email That Possibily Violated OML
From: Ben Herrington <email@example.com>
Date Fri, Jul 14, 2023 at 5:07 PM
Subject: Re: Superintendent’s Return
Over the past two days I have received a significant number of emails regarding the return to work of Dr. Mike Morris. Some have been positive and supportive, others have called for Mike to be placed on administrative leave and that we do so via emergency meeting. Many of these emails and inquiries have been based on or have contained inaccurate information. At any rate, I wanted to clarify a few things and then look at next steps.
First and foremost, there has been some confusion around whether Mike Morris is the target of an on-going title ix investigation. He is not, and has not been, the target of that investigation. He will, at some point in the next few weeks, discuss other matters with the investigator who is handling the title ix investigation. He has not been directly cited as the target of investigation.
Secondly, there has been a misconception regarding Doreen Cunningham being placed on administrative leave by the school committee. She was not. The acting superintendent, Doug Slaughter, placed her on administrative leave. She is also not a direct target of a title ix investigation.
I have inquired, on behalf of the school committee, into the timeline of events leading up to the title ix investigation and any related inquiries that have arisen throughout the course of the initial investigation. The specific information requested was 1) What did Doreen Cunningham know and when did she know 2) what steps were taken after reports of wrongdoing went to HR 3) What did Mike Morris know and when did he know?
Today I spoke with Ed Mitnick and Marc Terry about the status of the investigation as well as the status of my queries. I learned that the investigation is, indeed, in its final stages and that the last few interviews would be conducted in the coming weeks, with the title ix investigation being the priority to complete first. Mike Morris will be interviewed sometime during the last week of the month.
All of that being said, it is my opinion that placing Dr. Morris on administrative leave would not be the most appropriate act rightnow, nor would it be the best course of action for the district as a whole. I recognize that there is significant pressure to do so and that my opinion does not constitute the opinion or direction of this body. I will not be available next week, but if the committee decides it would like to meet to discuss this matter, I will support the Vice Chair in posting a meeting as soon as possible. I have full faith and confidence in the Vice Chair’s ability to facilitate such a meeting and will support that to whatever end I can.
I want to be clear that simply posting and conducting a meeting in executive session to discuss placing the superintendent on administrative leave would send the message, publicly, that we may not support his return, regardless of the outcome of that discussion. And, there could be potentially negative repercussions as a result. I am not saying this to sway the conversation one way or another, but rather to ensure that I have informed this body of the possibility that our actions could cause further turmoil in the district and disrupt operations for some time. That may be necessary, it also may be foolish of us to do.
In conclusion, I am asking if folks feel that, with the noted risks,the Regional School Committee should meet in executive session to discuss the possibility of putting the superintendent on administrative leave.
Do not “reply all.” Please email me individually at Herringtonbsc@arps.org and simply state whether or not you believe we should meet next week in executive session.