The Old Rochester Regional School Committee’s scheduled discussion on committee-sponsored social-media accounts and access nearly resulted in the takedown of the committee’s Facebook page before a last-second support of a motion resulted in only a temporary shutdown pending internal review.
Committee Chair Michelle Smith read a prepared statement during the committee’s March 1 public meeting in response to a February 25 Facebook post publishing the Open Meeting Law complaints recently made by Mattapoisett resident Kathleen LeClair.
“It has come to my attention that there has been a post on the (Old Rochester) Facebook page that is not agenda related or discussed with this body as a whole. It has been my understanding of the OR School Committee page is that its function is to share school-committee meetings, our public-meeting posts, or school-related information that the school committee had voted on and approved. … With that said, the post on Saturday, February 18, does not fall into any of those categories. … As the chairperson, I find this very concerning, and the issue needs to be addressed immediately for clarity and direction,” read Smith.
Committee member Margaret McSweeny asked who manages the page. Smith said the page is managed by Joe Pires, who, given the floor, then explained that the Facebook page was the brainchild of the Communications Subcommittee.
“The intention of the page was to create awareness of everything that was going on, not only with the school board but also happenings within the school. It was intended to get a push in terms of communication,” said Pires. “I understand in listening to Chairperson Smith, but the outline that she gave in terms of the intent or the purpose of the page isn’t 100 percent accurate. It was intended to be well rounded, and anything related to the school board that’s relevant can be posted on that page.
“The idea of posting the complaints was basically to tell the community that we’re going to pull through this and stand by it. It’s public record that that information is made available to the general public.”
Having noted that the Communications Subcommittee had not met this academic year and had last planned to meet with ORR Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson to establish policy, Pires proposed taking the Facebook page down until the committee could meet and agree on a content policy moving forward.
McSweeny recommended the page allowing private messaging but not public comment. “I would suggest making it not an area for dialogue but just getting messages out and having an updated list of committee members … that would be helpful,” she said.
Pires was the page’s lone administrator as of February 22, having succeeded former ORR School Committee Chairperson Heather Burke in the role.
Committee member April Nye expressed concern over the anonymity accompanying posts on the Facebook page and a general lack of knowledge as to how the page is managed. Pires countered that the common practice of such a page is to post information as having emanated from the committee and no one individual.
Nye expressed further concern of a singular person deciding what gets posted and asked Pires if the Open Meeting Law complaints filed earlier in the school year (by Amanda Baptiste) were also posted. Pires said the complaints were posted on social media but did not commit to saying they had been posted on the ORR School Committee page.
McSweeny corroborated with Nye’s inability to find the earlier Open Meeting Law complaints on the ORR School Committee page and took issue with a lack of consistency in presentation.
Pires told Nye that the page has been live for six years. He said that Burke and he had made all posts of anything considered by either administrator to be public information. He reiterated his contention that the subcommittee should meet and “go over everything that you’re talking about.”
Nye acknowledged that the video of the committee meeting in which Baptiste’s Open Meeting Law complaints were read was posted but noted the text as was the case with LeClair’s complaints. Nye reiterated her issues with consistency in presentation of the “transparency piece.”
Member Jim Muse, attending the meeting remotely via Zoom, asked for confirmation as to the members of the Communication Subcommittee. Committee Secretary Melissa Wilcox said Pires, Smith and Rose Bowman are the three subcommittee’s members.
Muse said school committee discussions should occur before such public posts are made on social-media platforms.
“The committee should have decided if we want to post something there,” he said. “If things aren’t … somehow benefiting the students that we’re working for, then I don’t see why we’re spending time with it. In my opinion, I’d just as soon see the Communications (subcommittee) disbanded.”
Pires alluded to a similar post last year and asserted self-contradiction on the part of his critics. Muse said the committee posted and then deemed it inappropriate and took it down.
“The place where we should be having our discussions is right there, right now, in this format and public and under control,” said Muse. “Social media is not controlled and, as such, when anything other than the school calendar or other things of that kind of nature are put there, very little can be non-controversial. … The Communication (Subcommittee) hasn’t even met or had discussion, and this page is just a runaway train.”
Muse reiterated his opinion that the School Committee does not need a Communications Subcommittee.
Committee member Frances-Feliz Kearns referenced individual, school-based social-media pages and suggested those might be more suitable platforms to discuss “what’s going on in the district.” With that, Kearns supported Muse’s viewpoint on the Communications Subcommittee.
Nye stopped short of agreeing with a move to disband the subcommittee and taking down the page altogether but reiterated her representation concerns and suggested more people be involved.
Pires stuck by his motion to temporarily take down the page until the issues can be properly vetted by the subcommittee. At the last second before Muse motioned to take down the page altogether, Bowman seconded Pires’ motion, and the School Committee voted to take down the page pending a Communications Subcommittee meeting.
As recommended by Nelson, the ORR School Committee voted to delegate its response to Open Meeting Law complaints filed with the state by LeClair to legal counsel as arranged by the superintendent.
On February 14, the district received notice of three Open Meeting Law complaints filed with the state by LeClair. One of the complaints was updated on February 16 with additional information for the committee’s consideration, according to Nelson.
The first of the three complaints addressed all four district school committees (Marion, Mattapoisett, Rochester and ORR.) A second complaint was addressed to the Equity Subcommittee, and the third complaint was addressed to the Policy Subcommittee.
Per rules, the complaints were distributed to all the committees, and Nelson explained to ORR School Committee members that they needed to decide how to respond within the required 14-day timeframe, with a report forwarded to the attorney general.
Rochester and Mattapoisett school committees and the Equity Subcommittee had completed those processes by the time the ORR School Committee would meet. All three entities also delegated response to legal counsel as arranged by the superintendent.
Nelson provided the committee with an update to the proposed FY24 budget, including news that the Budget Subcommittee has supported a FY24 draft budget by proposing certain decreases (relative to FY23) on technology and academic resources. The ORR School Committee will vote on the budget in “the near future,” according to Nelson.
The committee voted to appoint Christina Gagnon as the committee’s treasurer, pending negotiations.
The committee began with an executive session.
The next meeting of the ORR School Committee is scheduled for Wednesday, March 15, at 6:30 pm.
ORR School Committee
By Mick Colageo