SAUGUS — When Olivia Tamagna was a child, she went to school each day riddled with anxiety. But by lunchtime, it didn’t matter.
Day after day, Bill Moore, a custodian at Veterans Memorial Elementary School, sat beside her and ate lunch.
It was a simple gesture of kindness, but to Tamagna, it made each day — and each school year — a little better.
“These custodians mean a lot to me,” said Tamagna, now 16 and going into her junior year at Saugus High School. “Bill means a lot to me. I felt it was very unfair for them to lose their jobs.”
Tamagna was just one of about a dozen residents to speak out against the privatization of custodial services at a Special Town Meeting Monday night. No one spoke in favor.
The meeting was called after Town Meeting member Ron Wallace was told by moderator Steve Doherty that he could not read a non-binding resolution that supported the school custodians because the matter did not appear on the annual meeting warrant.
Wallace was outraged and said that he was being “silenced.” Other Town Meeting members requested the rules be suspended so their fellow board member could make his statement. But that request was denied too.
“The idea of a resolution being presented on the night of a meeting kind of goes against the state’s and the town’s intent to give fair notice to the citizens and allow those who have a stake in the conversation to come forward and speak about it,” said Doherty.
The incident sparked a grassroots effort to hold a Special Town Meeting before the end of the fiscal year so that members could pass the resolution.
The School Department laid off 21 school custodians last Tuesday and the workers, including employees with decades of service to the schools, will be off the job on June 30. The School Department has not yet said who will replace the custodians, but the School Committee sought proposals from private cleaning companies earlier this year.
“It takes a lot of moxie to do what (Tamagna) did,” said Moore, who was brought to tears by the words of a former student. “If I made that kind of impression — I’m humbled.”
Town Meeting member Rick Lavoie has been working in Saugus schools for two decades and said that when times get tough, children need to know there’s someone there for them.
“It’s not always a history teacher or a guidance counselor that they run to,” he said.
Town Meeting member Ryan Fisher said the biggest issue is with the process and the way things were handled. He compared the vote to lay off the custodians to the vote for an override to build a new middle-high school. The latter was an open process in which voters were presented all of the information and left to make a decision, he said.
The School Committee “has lost the people,” he said. “The people do not support this.”
Central Street resident Chris Brennan said that the School Committee’s actions are not supported by the town. He questioned how they could arrive at such a decision.
“At some point in my lifetime, the jobs that our fathers and grandfathers raised us on have been deemed expendable,” said Brennan.
Town Meeting adopted the resolution 34 to 2.
Members also adopted a new section in the town’s bylaws that says that any Town Meeting member can propose a non-binding resolution within 48 hours of written or electronic notice.
It specifies that resolutions may not seek to appropriate funds, propose zoning or general bylaw changes, or have any binding effects on the operations of town government. Resolutions will not be considered actions of the Town Meeting, as defined by Massachusetts General Law, according to the proposal. They will be considered statements of opinion and will require a majority vote.
“Even though this has been a privatization issue as it began, as we all know, the more important thing was freedom of speech,” said resident Corinne Riley, who presented the citizen petition.
Town Counsel John Vasapolli said his concern is that 48 hours does not allow a lot of notice for the public.
But Lavoie argued that “we communicate faster now than we did even 10 years ago.”