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Ethics of Wakefield School Board questioned

Resignation of Paul School principal provokes petition, outrage

March 15, 2012
WAKEFIELD — The ethics of Wakefield School Board members were questioned at its first meeting of the month last Wednesday, March 7.

A crowd came to the usually quiet meeting and members of the public spoke out on three separate topics: The board's acceptance of Principal Tricia-Lynn Moser's resignation at its Feb. 23 meeting, Chair Priscilla Colbath's e-mail endorsing a Wakefield candidate, and the board's discussion on policies at its prior meeting that maybe should have been done in a non-public setting.

Before allowing comments from the public, Colbath read aloud a statement regarding the board's previous decision to accept Moser's resignation.

"The board unanimously accepted Principal Moser's resignation at our Feb. 23 meeting. There may be people here that wish to speak. We will not engage in any conversation regarding the principal's resignation. We are unable to discuss personnel in a public setting. We must also be concerned with the principal's rights."

This forewarning prompted Sandy Ouellette to comment that the board always seems to know about things before they're brought to the board.

"You know why we're here and that we have a petition going, and I think it's unfair that we can't say how we feel," she said before reminding the board that they had received 23 letters from teachers to reconsider their decision at the last meeting.

Teacher Jackie Keating took the chance to take a much more assertive approach with the board.

"I'm here to tell you that Tricia Moser is going to be the principal of Paul School next year. You will give her back her resignation and offer her a contract."

Though Keating said she had "over a hundred signatures here that are asking," whether or not the board received the petition after the meeting is unknown.

Many people spoke in high regard of Moser and the work she has done over the past two years.

Relf Fogg said that the community "puts our faith and trust [in the board] that you'll always do the right thing for our kids, and it seems like we're on the right track now."

Another resident, Skip Rogers, agreed in saying that before Moser he never got the help he needed for one of his children, a student at Paul School.

"As a board you need to reconsider this decision because you're losing a fine administrator and the entire spirit of this school is going to go downhill," he said.

A grandmother of two students at Paul School read aloud a petition her grandchildren wrote in favor of keeping Moser on board. In one day the children had obtained 75-plus student signatures, the woman said.

After pointing out that the school had already seen "seven principals in the last 10 years," Rogers took it upon himself to ask Moser directly to withdraw her resignation and asked that the board accept this decision. He also asked that they reconsider the length of the one-year contract they currently give the school's principals, saying it's too short to expect much of anything.

During the meeting, whether it was against school policy or not, Moser did not speak on her own behalf regarding her resignation.

Fogg ended the conversation by commenting on the purpose of the school and school board.

"If we could focus on our goal of taking care of the kids and educating the kids and making them as good as citizens that they can be…the kids deserve good leadership which they've had for the past year and it could continue if the school board choices to have that happen."

E-mail controversy

In the weeks prior, Colbath had sent an e-mail out to members of the community and school from her own personal e-mail account that endorsed a local political candidate. Because the e-mail was received by a few school district e-mail accounts, some community members were questioning if this was a violation of school board policy and code of ethics.

To this point, Fogg addressed a school board policy that states that, "school board property or equipment shall not be used to promote a political campaign."

"You violated it by directly sending e-mails to people at their school computers," Fogg concluded.

Agreeing with Fogg, Steve Brown referenced School Policy EHAA that he said reads, "the electronic mail system may not be used to solicit commercial ventures, religious or political causes, outside organizations, or other non-job related solicitations."

Having gotten wind that her ethics were being questioned, Colbath had consulted the school board attorney and had a written letter of response in hand.

Based on Colbath's discussion with the attorney, he wrote, "I do not believe that you violated any specific school board ethics policies. Assuming that no school district resources were used for e-mails and mailings you are merely exercising your right to endorse a candidate and speak freely about which candidate you endorse."

The attorney went on to explain that while sending e-mails to school district personnel at their district e-mail is not advisable, the fact that she did so from her personal e-mail address "mitigates to some degree any potential conflict of ethical problems."

"Just because I'm on the school board does not take away my rights as a citizen," said Colbath after reading the letter aloud.

Others said they were just concerned with the ethics behind the e-mail and questioned why she would put herself in this position. Colbath responded that the e-mail was not signed by herself as a school board member, but by herself as a community member.

Feb. 23 meeting

The activity at the board's last meeting on Feb. 23 was also brought into question when Fogg commented that it "didn't seem very orderly."

Regarding a discussion on school policies that occurred at that last meeting, he said, "It seemed as though some of the items in that discussion could have been discussed in non-public session" and that it seemed almost hostile. Fogg implied as though it was the results of that discussion that brought about Moser's resignation.

To this Colbath stated that no decisions were made because of what happened in that meeting.

Regarding the discussion on policies school board member Judy Nason said that because they (she and Liz Olimpio) have worked so hard revising policies over the years that it's frustrating when they are not followed. She clarified that her bringing up policies "was not a particular attack on any one person," rather that she was just trying to bring up the point that policies need to be followed. "To set policy is a major job of the school board," she concluded.

Others in the public acknowledged that, not just in that instance, but in others as well, there has been a disconnect between the school board and the administrators and cases in which they did not work well together.

Other business

The school board approved an eighth grade day trip to Boston. Similar to last year's field trip, this year's 44 students will enjoy a "duck tour" of the city, take in a Blue Man Group performance, eat at the Hard Rock Café and visit the North End for dessert.

Through fund raising the students have already earned enough to cover the $8,050 cost of the trip.

Nason reported on a Safe Routes to School meeting she had recently attended.

The group, which promotes walking and biking to and from school, is working on a start up grant that will help to cover the costs of items such as an additional flashing speed limit sign and school zone signs as well as possibly cover the expense of repainting certain crosswalks, setting up satellite drop off spots and the help of a crossing guard.

If these efforts encourage a substantial amount of students and staff to walk or bike to school, then in the future the group may be able to apply for a larger grant that could cover the cost of sidewalk installation.

The board discussed technology standards and infrastructure within the school, reviewed the expense reports, held a second reading for several policies and adopted the academic calendar for the 2012-13 school year before adjourning for the evening.

The Wakefield School Board is scheduled to meet again next Wednesday evening, March 21, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Paul School Library.

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