By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — School officials called a secret meeting just before Thanksgiving to lay out changes to the Rangerland preschool program in a gathering some felt was designed to intimidate a city councilor.
School Superintendent Judith Scannell said intimidation was “absolutely not” part of the Nov. 21 meeting, which The Eagle-Tribune is contending was illegal under the state’s open meeting law. The Eagle-Tribune filed a complaint with city officials Friday.
Scannell maintains the meeting was called to explain the entire program and emphasize that it is a school issue, not an issue for the City Council. In attendance were School Committee members Evan Chaisson, Lynn Hajjar Kumm, Mary Jean Fawcett, Barbara Grondine and Mayor Stephen Zanni, making it a quorum of the School Committee.
Also in attendance were several school administrators and City Councilor Jamie Atkinson. Councilors Jennifer Kannan and Sean Fountain arrived partway through the meeting, which was not posted 48 hours in advance, as mandated under state law.
“Jamie had called Councilor Kannan and myself, and we went there right then,” Fountain said. “He asked if we would attend it.”
“The gist is (Scannell) wasn’t very nice to Jamie,” Fountain said.
Atkinson said that the meeting, at the Quinn Building school administration office on Hampshire Street, was called to discuss Rangerland, but he declined to comment on the tone of the discussion.
“It’s a dead issue,” he said. “I don’t want to comment any further.”
Both Scannell and Atkinson said they have known each other for decades, and Scannell said she talked to Atkinson after the meeting.
“I told him I wasn’t going after him, I wasn’t on the attack,” she said.
Zanni said the discussion was not meant to intimidate.
“My take is she was explaining to him how the program is going to be run and that the City Council shouldn’t interfere in it,” Zanni said.
Two School Committee members, Mark Graziano and Deborah Quinn, were not invited to the meeting. Scannell said she invited only some of the School Committee members, those “who had questions and were curious.”
“I had never been notified about that meeting, so I don’t know what happened,” Graziano said. “I heard it was a little contentious.”
Zanni and Scannell said the meeting falls under the emergency meeting exemption and notice was not required to be posted. The mayor said in an interview Friday the meeting was needed to address comments from parents.
The Eagle-Tribune has filed an open meeting law complaint with the city and the School Department, seeking as remedy a copy of a complete transcript of the meeting signed by all attending members of the School Committee that is provided to the newspaper and posted prominently on the School Department’s webpage, and that the School Committee end the practice of meeting without the legally required 48-hour posting.
Fountain said he got several phone calls and e-mails the week of Thanksgiving from Rangerland parents complaining that their attempts to reach their School Committee members and the school administration about the sudden closing or rearranging of the program were met with silence. Fountain passed along those calls to Zanni.
“(School officials) think the council overstepped their bounds. Nothing had happened on the part of the council. I called the mayor twice about it and asked if he could look into it,” Fountain said.
Parents of preschoolers and high school students involved in Rangerland were upset two weeks ago over changes announced in two Nov. 14 letters, which Scannell said were not worded properly and led to confusion about the future of the program.
She said she was frustrated by the miscommunication – at least one of the letters said, “... we must close the Rangerland Pre-School Program...” and gave the impression the program was ending altogether – and held several meetings to clarify what the program’s future will be this year.
Several days before Thanksgiving, some parents said they contacted their School Committee members, but because they were not getting a response, they went to Fountain, their city councilor.
“They said they weren’t getting any response from School Committee members and so they reached out to councilors,” Fountain said of his constituents. “I said I would inquire, but we don’t have any jurisdiction in school matters.”
Several high school students reported safety concerns to administrators this year during their walk from the high school to Tenney Grammar School, where Rangerland was moved this year because of the high school renovation project. High school students will finish their preschool lab work at Timony Grammar School, while the preschoolers were reassigned to their neighborhood grammar schools.
Kannan did not respond to several interview requests. E-mails sent to School Committee members Kumm, Grondine, Chaisson and Fawcett asking the purpose of the Nov. 21 meeting did not receive a response.
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