Susan Spencer Teleggram & Gazette Staff
The Southbridge School Committee did not violate the state's Open Meeting Law when it voted to appoint an interim superintendent and a recording secretary in July, the attorney general's office ruled last week.
But Assistant Attorney General Hanne Rush wrote in her letter of Dec. 22 to the School Committee's lawyer, Kimberly Rozak, that because commitee Chairman Scott S. Lazo knew the identity of the sole candidate for each of the two positions, he should have posted their names on the meeting agendas.
The state ruling was issued in response to a complaint filed with the School Committee in August by former committee member Erin Quinney that a quorum of the committee deliberated outside of a meeting to appoint Steven Bliss as interim superintendent and Max Gullekson as recording secretary. Mr. Lazo responded to the complaint on behalf of the committee on Aug. 31.
Ms. Quinney filed the complaint with the attorney general Sept. 9, requesting further review.
She resigned her seat in mid-August, with a year remaining in her term. Ms. Quinney suggested it was "very clear that decisions were made outside of public meetings," according to a Telegram & Gazette report.
According to the assistant attorney general's letter, the July 22 meeting notice listed a topic as "Interim Superintendent." Mr. Lazo reported he recalled a committee discussion about Steven Bliss' interest in the interim position. Mr. Bliss had also previously submitted a letter of interest.
Mr. Lazo invited Mr. Bliss to the July 22 meeting to be interviewed for the position, informing one other committee member ahead of time, William Bishop, that he had done so. The committee interviewed Mr. Bliss at that meeting and appointed him to the position.
In the other position appointment case, after the committee's prior recording secretary's appointment had expired, Max Gullekson, who previously served as recording secretary, submitted a letter of interest to the committee for the position. He was the only candidate to indicate interest.
Mr. Lazo invited Mr. Gullekson to act as recording secretary at the committee's meetings held on July 22 and July 28. During the July 28 meeting, for which a notice had been posted about appointing a recording secretary, the committee voted to appoint Mr. Gullekson.
Ms. Rush wrote that the Open Meeting Law requires all meetings of a public body be properly noticed and open to the public and prohibits deliberation outside of a public meeting among a quorum of a public body on any public business within its jurisdiction.
"We find no evidence that a quorum of the Committee discussed these appointments outside of a meeting," she wrote. "Other than the sole candidate for each position, there were no other candidates for the Committee's consideration."
Ms. Rush continued: "We remind the Committee, however, that because Chair Lazo knew the identities of these candidates prior to posting the July 22 and July 28 meeting notices, their names should have been included in the posted discussion topics."
The district has been in turmoil for years.
Two weeks ago, state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said a recommendation to place the low-performing school district in Level 5 receivership was not off the table. Since then, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has advertised seeking bids for a possible receiver for the Southbridge School system.
Seven people have served as superintendent since 2011. Mr. Bliss, who was appointed as permanent superintendent on Sept. 22, resigned abruptly in October after one month in the position. Longtime educator and Sutton resident Timothy Connors is serving as interim superintendent.