Despite pleas, SEPAC denied seat on screening committee

At the School Committee’s Sept. 7 meeting, Chair Sarah Fox announced the members of the interim superintendent screening committee, upsetting some parents and advocates who wanted it to include a representative from the town’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council. 

“I am disappointed,” said Jennifer Jackson, co-chair of SEPAC, who spoke at the School Committee meeting after sending an email to Fox on Sept. 1 urging her to include a SEPAC member on the committee.

The School Committee discussed requests to include a SEPAC represenative in the interim superintendent search at its Sept. 7 meeting.

There are more than 550 students on active individualized education plans, or IEPs, in the district, according to Jackson.

“SEPAC believes that its participation is critical to ensuring that the School Committee and district officials — current and future — understand the role of and voice of the community with respect to the education and safety of students with disabilities as the search for a new district superintendent begins,” Jackson wrote in a Sept. 1 email to Fox.

Jackson said Fox never responded to her.

Committee member Meagan Taylor made a motion to include a SEPAC representative on the screening committee. The motion did not get a second.

“I did email Sarah requesting that both SEPAC and METCO have a seat on the search committee,” Meagan Taylor later told the Current. That email was sent Aug. 31.

As Meagan Taylor continued to make her case at the meeting, Fox banged her gavel to stop her from speaking.

Fox said the New England School Development Council, which is helping with the interim super search, recommended that the committee consist of two School Committee members, one teacher or staff member, one administrator and a parent. 

“We took our recommendation from our consultant on the makeup,” Fox said. “She recommended three to five members. We went with the higher number to try and give the largest amount of representation.”

Fox added, “The vast majority of people on this committee can speak from a special education lens. I think all but one member has experience in that.”

Jackson reached out to Fox on Sept. 8, hoping to reach a compromise. She said Fox agreed to allow a question from SEPAC to be posed to interim superintendent candidates in final interviews.

The screening committee announced Sept. 7 includes: Fox and School Committee member  Alison Taylor, Acting Superintendent Michelle Cresta, school adjustment counselor Alison Carey and parent Sarah Magazine. Magazine helped lead the unsuccessful campaign to support the $2.5 million override. 

Upcoming dates in the interim superintendent search are: 

— Monday, Sept. 18: All applications for the interim superintendent job are due, and the screening committee will meet for the first time.
— Wednesday, Sept. 20: The second meeting of the screening committee will be held, when members will decide whom to interview and will finalize their questions.
— Sept. 27, 28, 29: Interviews with interim superintendent candidates will happen.

COVID funding concerns

Member Alison Taylor spoke about her concerns that the schools have not received a big enough share of federal pandemic funding from the American Recovery Plan Act. The town received a total of $6.1 million in ARPA funds.

According to Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer, the schools have received $1,065,805 in ARPA money. That number surprised School Committee members who only knew about approximately $650,000 in APRA funding for the schools.

The $1,065,805 figure is “63% higher than I have knowledge of us receiving,” Fox said. “I’m wondering where that extra 63% is.”

Kezer explained to the Current that he allocated half the cost of the town’s new financial software to the schools.

“Because the software is being used by both the town and the schools, I split, for the purposes of accounting, that one-time cost between the town and the schools. That accounts for $231,902” of the discrepancy, Kezer said.

Another $202,000 can be attributed to a mistake at Town Meeting, he added.

“During the course of putting together the capital plan for Town Meeting, with all the moving parts, there was a capital project… that the schools had requested that we intended to fully fund,” Kezer said. “Somewhere in the process, something happened to the dollar amount, and it was short by $202,890. When we discovered that after Town Meeting was done, we said, ‘Okay, that was an error. We will make up for it.’”

Kezer said he used $202,890 in ARPA money to fund the school project.

Additionally, Kezer recently allocated half of the cost of a consultant who will help prepare town files for the switch to the new financial software. That accounts for another $64,000 in ARPA money attributed to the schools.

Alison Taylor and Fox said ARPA money should be going to benefit students directly. Kezer argued differently.

“The schools received something like $1.2 million in what’s called ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds,” he explained. “ESSER funds during COVID were provided to school systems specifically for that purpose, solely for schools for learning loss, etc. I would argue that updating… our financial software puts in place the management tools that are lacking to better manage the resources for the town and the schools.”

He continued, “It may be an indirect benefit, but it is a critical benefit to both the town and schools.”

Lunatic squad

Mary McCarriston, wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘Lunatic Squad’ on the back, asked if School Committee Sarah Fox planned to apologize after using the word ‘lunatics’ before letting people onto a Zoom call. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

During public comment, Mary McCarriston, wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘Lunatic Squad’ on the back, addressed Fox.

“I’m wondering if you’re going to apologize to all the stakeholders out there that you referred to as lunatics waiting to get onto a Zoom meeting,” she said.

Fox replied, “I used a very poor choice of words. I most certainly was not referring to all stakeholders. I was referring to people who had been verbally attacking my children walking down the street, saying things to me in stores in town in front of my kids. I think it’s never really good to involve kids.”

McCarriston followed up: “So are you going to apologize?”

Fox did not respond.

McCarriston stood up to leave and said, “Just so you know, I’m one of the lunatic squad.”

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Editor Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter.

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