SAUGUS — Two members of the School Committee fear the panel inadvertently — and illegally — voted to terminate contracts for the school’s 21 custodians in a meeting that was closed to the public. Committee Chairwoman Jeannie Meredith vehemently denied the session was illegal or that any vote taken was improper.
The conflict surrounds a May 8 meeting, according to committee member Elizabeth Marchese. A secretary was not present at the executive session when a vote was taken, she said. Because of that, Marchese does not believe anyone took notes for meeting minutes or recorded the wording of the vote taken.
She and committeewoman Lisa Morgante believed they were voting to gather more information about the custodial bids received by the department. After the meeting, however, they became concerned that the vote actually terminated the union contract.
“The more I sit back and think about it, the more I realize something is not right,” said Marchese. “My alarms are going off.”
Meredith declined to comment on whether any vote was taken that morning, citing the bargaining exemption in the state’s Open Meeting Law. She said she is disheartened by the allegations being made by committee members.
“Unfortunately, at this time, I continue to be bound by the confidentiality of negotiations and impact bargaining with the union,” said Meredith. “I cannot comment at this time on what transpired in any form to remain in compliance with the Open Meeting Law and rules surrounding negotiations and impact bargaining.”
Without the notes, Morgante said she was unclear on what exactly transpired during the meeting.
“I’m not 100 percent sure what the vote was,” said Morgante. “I was under the impression that we were coming back to the table to hear final numbers. We were told several times we could not see the bids. We had never seen a comparison back and forth that showed what we would save (by privatizing custodial services).”
The agenda for the May 8 meeting listed a 7:15 a.m. executive session for the purpose of “collective bargaining for the custodians” and the “superintendent’s contract.” It specified that the board would not return to open session.
“Neither of those things were discussed,” said Marchese, who confirmed that the board did not return to a public meeting to disclose the vote.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that whole meeting was legal,” said Marchese. “We didn’t talk about negotiations, so it didn’t fall under a reason to have an executive session.”
Instead, Marchese said, Superintendent Dr. David DeRuosi presented a list of programs that could be brought back to the district with the $600,000 that would be saved by switching to a private company. Marchese said she was denied access to the bids.
DeRuosi did not return two email requests for comment.
“After multiple discussions and votes taken in the past two years, I believe this committee was crystal clear on what was happening,” said Meredith. “The content of the emails alone show that they weren’t confused about what was voted.”
After the meeting, both Morgante and Marchese fired off several emails to the full board asking for clarification on the vote, copies of the bids, and for a draft of the executive session minutes to review. The emails were obtained and reviewed by The Item.
“I feel that we may have voted too soon on this matter and I would like an executive session immediately to further discuss the same,” she wrote in a May 20 email.
Morgante wrote again on June 4 to follow up on the request and ask for the executive session minutes. On June 11, she questioned why her messages had gone unanswered.
“I’ve been patiently waiting for Bill Murray to show his face for some photo op, stating that I’ve been secretly partaking in the making of Groundhog (Day) II,” she wrote.
Marchese sent a similar string of messages to the board. She additionally requested the custodians be placed on the June 20 public meeting agenda and said she was making a motion to rescind the vote.
“I’m hoping that they do the right thing and give the people an opportunity to be heard for once, instead of shutting them out,” said Marchese. “If there’s nothing to hide, let’s take the vote publicly.”
Meredith said she did not respond to the emails because they contained deliberations and she believes it is a direct violation of the Open Meeting Law.
As of 7 p.m. Monday, the agenda for Thursday’s School Committee meeting was not posted on the town’s website. But Meredith said the panel has been advised by an attorney not to place the matter on a public agenda while they are in impact bargaining.
“I just can’t close my eyes at night knowing that 21 families did not have an opportunity to speak,” said Morgante. “They are taxpayers. They are workers. They are human and they are a part of the Saugus family. They have a right to be heard.”
Committeewoman Linda Gaieski said she doesn’t believe there was any confusion surrounding the May 8 meeting.
“I can emphaticallly say this is a politically staged and cunningly orchestrated plot by a number of local political opportunists and two school committee members to further their own political agendas,” said Gaieski.
She called the charges of illegalities in executive sessions “blatant lies.”
“Everything was above board and in complete compliance with the law and executed under advice of counsel,” said Gaieski.
Michael Mabee, a custodian and union member, said neither he nor other custodians were made aware of a vote.
They were told on May 17 that the School Committee would not vote to award a contract to a cleaning company, but no final decision had been made because the panel hadn’t yet had access to the bids, said Mabee.
On May 29, an attorney representing the School Committee told the union there would be no public vote on the issue, he said.
“At no point did they state that they voted on the cleaning contract,” said Mabee.
In a statement on Facebook, AFSCME Council 93 said “Superintendent DeRuosi and proponents of privatization on the school board know what they are doing is bad public policy. That’s why they didn’t have the courage to take the vote in public.”
According to Mass.gov, a final vote to execute a non-union personnel agreement must occur in open session. A public body can approve final terms and execute a collective bargaining agreement with a union in executive session, but should promptly disclose the agreement in open session following its execution.