Haverhill School Board Votes 6-0 to End Legal Action Against Teachers, Sidesteps Meeting Law Complaint

A Haverhill School Committee meeting. (WHAV News file photograph.)

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Accusations, denials and general confusion were in the mix during a discussion by the Haverhill School Committee last Thursday over the legality of an earlier closed-door meeting.

As previously reported by WHAV, the School Committee went into executive session late last month where they apparently voted 5-1 to end legal action against the Haverhill teachers’ union over recovery of costs related to last fall’s teachers strike. WHAV challenged the legality of the session, arguing that the Committee failed to state the specific purpose of the closed-door session beforehand, in violation of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, and privately discussed the vote with the Haverhill Education Association.

Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti began the discussion by pointing out the requirement for transparency in deliberations regarding public policy decisions. He said there are, however, 10 exceptions where the need discussion out of the public eye are acknowledged by the state. Those 10 exceptions, he said, come down to two areas.

“One of them is litigation strategy and the other one is when you’re contract bargaining either with a collective bargaining unit or a non-unit, and when we do go in executive session, for a strategy purpose, it’s to be kept among ourselves. It’s not to be put out there two minutes after the executive session is over,” he explained.

Magliocchetti said, with this most recent challenge to the use of a closed-door session, City Solicitor William D. Cox Jr. agreed to hold a training session in October on open meeting law requirements for all members of the School Committee and City Council. The Committee failed, however, to specifically respond to WHAV’s complaint or delegate the task to its lawyer as specified by the state attorney general’s office.

Part of the reason for the discussion was a related item to ratify the earlier decision. Magliocchetti balked because no one could say how much more money the city is seeking from the union—a question that lit the fuse for the evening’s fireworks, starting with an exchange between Magliocchetti and Vice Chair Maura L. Ryan-Ciardiello.

“We can’t just vote if we don’t know what the number is,” Magliocchetti charged. “Okay, hold on attorney Magliocchetti. Mr. Pfifferling has the floor right now,” responded Ryan-Ciardiello and the exchange continued. “I have the floor.” “No, Mr. Pfifferling is going to provide us some information tonight so we can vote.” “Where is it?” “Can you let him?” “That’s not the way this works. I challenge the chair.” “Okay, here we go.”

The Superior Court case in question was brought by the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board and the Haverhill School Committee against the Haverhill Education Association, Massachusetts Teachers Association, Timothy Briggs and Christine Hickey in their union roles.

Somewhat hesitantly, Assistant Superintendent Michael J. Pfifferling was able to produce a figure of $350,000. Magliocchetti noted the city transferred money at the eleventh hour to get schools back open, leaving a balance of about $130,00-$135,000. The Committee agreed to end legal action by a 6-0 vote with Mayor James J. Fiorentini absent after walking out of the meeting earlier in the evening.

The vote did not clear the air entirely, however, as part of Magliocchetti’s statement charged fellow committee members Scott W. Wood Jr., Toni Sapienza-Donaais and Ryan-Ciardiello with inappropriately releasing information about the executive session to the Haverhill Education Association and the press. Sapienza-Donais called that statement false.

“I’m going to say, emphatically, I did not go to the HEA and discuss anything, and to put this into writing in a public piece of paper, I find humiliating and disgusting,” she said.

Ciardiello also vehemently denied the charge of releasing information about the closed-door vote even though she was allegedly quoted.

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