School Committee ratifies superintendent separation agreement, hears from angry residents

After listening to an hour of largely critical public comments, the School Committee voted Friday to ratify its nearly $175,000 separation agreement with former superintendent John Buckey. It was the first public meeting on the superintendent controversy, which began in July.

The School Committee met in public session on Friday, Aug. 11. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

The committee announced Buckey’s departure on Aug. 2. “Out of an abundance of caution” and to ensure it was complying with the state’s Open Meeting Law, the board scheduled Friday’s meeting to ratify with a public vote a decision it had reached in executive session. Friday’s vote was 3-1, with member Meagan Taylor dissenting and Brian Ota recusing himself due to his still-pending discrimination complaint against Buckey.

“Thanks to this committee for finally admitting the public, even if as the Romans would say, the spear has been thrown and you have ejected Dr. Buckey from his job at a cost of at least $174,000, plus legal fees, plus interim costs, plus search-related expenses all to be funded not by you but by the Marblehead taxpayer,” said resident Rhod Sharp during the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, prior to the ratification vote. “I hope that you are about to lift the veil and tell us why Dr. Buckey was ejected one year into a three-year contract — something you haven’t done so far.”

The committee did not divulge any information about why it wanted to oust Buckey, with Chair Sarah Fox citing advice of the board’s attorney.

Resident Mimi Hollister demanded more transparency moving forward.

“I hope the School Committee will be upfront with your agenda, spelled out honestly and clearly for all of us, so we don’t have to guess at what you might really be planning next,” she said. “I hope you don’t have a hidden agenda, such as banning books or disparaging DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion workshops.”

She continued, “Finally, I hope that in the future you will indeed be truly transparent and not just cleverly politic in what you think you can get away with not disclosing, as happened in this past election. It’s the hidden agendas that caused the current uproar.”

More than a dozen people, in person at the high school library and on Zoom, expressed disappointment and anger at the way the School Committee handled the superintendent situation, complaining that it was done in secrecy and questioning members’ motives.

Former School Committee member Sarah Gold, who recently called for the full committee to resign, reiterated that request and added, “I will formally request that if you don’t resign, you schedule a public forum after school starts to address your behavior this summer and the implications and costs associated with this situation. It is important that we continue to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire.”

Gold continued, “Parents have still not received an email stating anything about Dr. Buckey’s departure, let alone the cost it is bringing to the district and what impacts these things will have as school opens. If we had extra money laying around to pay an employee to leave, why are parents paying to ensure there is a full sports program this year? Why did we just layoff over a dozen staff, causing us to incur unemployment expenses if there was so much money to spare? Why are you scheduling public meetings in the middle of a Friday afternoon in August? You are not allowed to hide from questions like these.”

Two people spoke in support of the School Committee, including John DiPiano.

“I’m disturbed at the hostility and vitriol being directed at the people who volunteer and were elected to the School Committee,” he said. “I find it disturbing that a former School Committee member would try and disenfranchise voters of this community by asking members of the present School Committee to resign.”

Frank Kasner joined on Zoom to say the School Committee must have had a good reason to try and part ways with Buckey.

“You will never know the reason for his termination, and you must assume that it was worthy of termination,” he said.

Addressing the School Committee via Zoom, Nanny McCarriston said, “It’s a shame that the surrounding communities are looking at Marblehead, and they are at laughing at us. You have turned this into a circus in less than two months. It’s disgusting what you’ve done.”

Charles Gessner said because the committee refused to comment on the termination of the former superintendent, the community has had to speculate about why Buckey left.

“If you haven’t had your head in the sand, you’ve probably heard the reasons that I hear all the time, and one is that a new member of the School Committee didn’t have his contract renewed and this is payback time,” Gessner said, referring to Ota. “The other is the school board has a problem with an outwardly gay superintendent. I hope that’s not the case.”

Nina Pickering Cook, a municipal attorney who lives in Marblehead, said, “No one was going to believe you that Dr. Buckey voluntarily resigned. Dr. Buckey signed an agreement with you after it became clear that he was going to be terminated. Certainly, everyone knows he was forced out.”

Cook questioned why the School Committee acted so quickly. “You all acted as if there was an immediate concern with him continuing in the district. If the concern was about his professional competence, then I am incredibly concerned you took such rash action given the financial circumstances that you’ve left us in … and given that it is two or three weeks before school starting.”

Jonathan Heller said he was speaking as a parent and teacher and not in his role as co-chair of the teachers’ union.

“I am worried about the health of our teachers,” he said. “Teachers are reading the comments online, and it does impact their health. Students are hearing us talk. It’s time that we come together.”

Previously, Heller had publicly supported Buckey as the committee was in talks to remove him.

Before Friday’s vote, School Committee member Meagan Taylor expressed her concerns.

“I think at this point, I have no choice but to accept the resignation,” she said. “I am just so profoundly disappointed that this is where we’re at. We did not effectively manage this superintendent. If there were concerns about his performance we should have addressed them. He just passed an evaluation with a proficient rating. That was the time to bring up concerns. We haven’t ethically managed him.”

She continued, “As a result of that, the district is at significant risk. We’re already stretched in our budget. We shouldn’t be spending any additional money.”

Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta addressed how the district would cover the cost of Buckey’s separation agreement and the School Committee’s legal fees.

“There are two primary areas,” she said. “First is that the School Committee had budgeted $420,000 for unemployment costs due to staffing eliminations from the no-override budget. Most of the staff in the 33 positions ended up resigning before the end of the year year, and we only ended up laying off a handful of individuals. Because they didn’t end up being laid off, we’re no longer responsible for unemployment benefits for those employees. This creates about $150,000 to $200,000 available in that unemployment line.

She continued, “Also, we will have available funding in our staffing lines because a significant number of our new hires are coming in a lower salaries than we planned. This additional savings is $100,000 to $250,000. In these two areas we should be able to absorb $250,000 to $350,000.”

Taylor said that money should be used for student-facing needs.

After the vote, Fox defended herself against the public criticism.

“Personnel matters and student information is privileged for a reason, to protect these individuals as appropriate,” Fox said. “It’s not that I don’t understand your frustration. I do. It’s not that I think you’re not due more information. If I could answer questions in the last month I’ve been asked, I think that would have turned the vitriol down.”

Member Jennifer Schaeffner added, “I did not take this or any other vote lightly or without profound research and thought… and actually prayer.”

Member Alison Taylor added, “We need to be the model not only for each other and for other people in the community, but for our children.”

Open Meeting Law violation complaints

The School Committee voted (3-1) to find “no violation” in response to an Open Meeting Law complaint filed by resident Cathyann Swindlehurst, on advice of counsel. It also tossed a complaint from parent Reece Dahlberg saying it wasn’t complete.

Swindlehurst said she plans to appeal the committee’s decision to the state Attorney General’s Office.

What’s next?

At the end of the 2 1/2 hour meeting, the School Committee met in executive (private) session to vote on a request by the Current to release minutes and other materials from the July 21 and 31 executive sessions. Fox said those minutes may be released on Monday. Stay with the Current for more coverage.

Also, the committee voted to formalize Cresta’s position of acting superintendent through Oct. 31. She will continue her role as assistant superintendent of finance also. Meanwhile, the Committee will begin its search for an interim superintendent.

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Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.

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