A special Committee meeting was held at 6:00 last Tuesday (prior to the regular 7:00 business meeting), where the Committee participated in “refresher course” on our roles and responsibilities. A panel came before us as guides: Atty. David Jenkins of Kopelman & Paige, Atty. Tom Nuttall of Nuttall, McAvoy and Joyce, Melrose City Solicitor Robert Van Campen, and Mass. Assoc. of School Committees Field Director Dorothy Presser.
Atty. Jenkins led off, speaking to how Committee roles changed dramatically after the Ed. Reform Law of 1993, when the day-to-day running of the School Department changed hands from school committees to administrators. There are state statutes regarding Committee responsibilities; there are also clauses in the Melrose City Charter (find it here: https://malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2005/Chapter105). In general terms, school committees determine the selection, term, and contract of a superintendent, review and approve school budgets, and set policy. They perform other selected duties like setting performance standards for teachers (by approving the collective bargaining agreement).
Regarding more specific tasks and items gathered from his experience with schools, Atty. Jenkins noted that regarding collective bargaining, as the bargaining agent (under MGL Ch. 150E), committees must provide for confidentiality, for example, bargaining sessions can’t be recorded for an individual member to view later, nor can a member participate in a grievance discussion as that would likely be considered an unfair labor practice. Regarding student discipline, the role of a committee is to adopt policies. Regarding teacher discipline, authority is primarily vested in the superintendent and principals. Regarding special education and individual assessments (potentially asked when the budget is in question), committee members are not entitled to any information that could potentially reveal the identity of a student.
Atty. Jenkins spoke to information to which individual members are entitled, and in most cases, an individual member is entitled to no more information than a member of the public. As such, members can’t meet with district personnel without clear policies by the committee as a whole. If a committee member asks for specific analyses to be prepared, protocol consistent with a citizen request is followed. Regarding asking for more specificity on invoices from attorneys, invoices don’t have to be recreated with more specificity since the district is not required to create documents that don’t exist. Individual staff personnel files are confidential and would not be provided. Student information would not be provided. The superintendent’s evaluation must be public, but the document associated with the evaluation is part of his/her personnel file and can be private.
Atty. Nuttall, specialist in special education, civil rights, and discipline, and the district’s attorney on these issues, referenced federal privacy laws (FERPA) and state privacy laws (Regulation 603 CMR 23: Student Records). He offered a “cautionary tale” about a district that accidentally posted comments about parents of special education students on the district web site prior to its being noticed and removed, and explained that in even presenting information with student names deleted, there may still be enough information provided to identify the student which is unlawful.
MASC Field Representative Dorothy Presser spoke to leadership roles of committees and superintendents, explaining that committees are the “what” of governance (recommending and deliberating) while superintendents are the “how” (implementing). She recommends that committees adopt group norms, have each member sign, and then strictly enforce them.