HAVERHILL — School Committee member Paul Magliocchetti said his board goes into executive session too often. His colleague Joseph Bevilacqua agrees with him.
Their criticism comes in the wake of a Jan. 28 closed session in which the committee gave a $2,000 raise to Whittier Middle School Principal Beth Kitsos, who had threatened a sex discrimination lawsuit if her pay wasn't boosted to match a male colleague's salary. Minutes from the meeting were released Feb. 14, but had been amended without some committee members' knowledge.
"How does that happen?" asked Bevilacqua about the minutes. "I've always believed we do too much in executive session."
Magliocchetti, who was elected to the School Committee last November, said the board should minimize its executive sessions because "the public has a right to know." He said "more specificity" is needed about the committee's reasons for meeting behind closed doors.
"It doesn't appear to me we're complying with the law," he said.
Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan said he and the school board's policy subcommittee were to meet yesterday to discuss how the panel should handle executive sessions.
The Eagle-Tribune has asked the Essex District Attorney's Office to investigate whether the board violated the state's Open Meeting Law by voting behind closed doors to boost Kitsos' pay. District attorney's office spokesman Stephen O'Connell said a decision is "pending."
The School Committee voted 4-3 on Jan. 28 to give Kitsos a new contract, including a pay raise, during the executive session, according to committee members and meeting minutes. Kitsos' pay raise was approved with the school district in the midst of a wage freeze, a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall and cuts to programs for students next school year. The salary increase raises Kitsos' pay to $85,000 a year — the same as first year Hunking School Principal Stephen Sierpina.
Kitsos threatened the lawsuit unless the committee raised her salary to equal Sierpina's, committee members said.
Committee members Raymond Sierpina, father of the Hunking principal, Mayor James Fiorentini, Sue Danehy and Magliocchetti all voted to give Kitsos the new contract. School Committee President Shaun Toohey and members Scott Wood and Bevilacqua voted against it.
"The settlement of a lawsuit or legal claim is a perfectly proper and legal subject of an executive session," the mayor said in an e-mail shortly afterward. "If a claim was settled, or if an offer of settlement was made, the minutes of the meeting will be made public as soon as it is legal to do so. The public has the right to know about the settlement of claims, and they will once the matter is public."
At its Feb. 14 meeting, the committee released the official written record of the Jan. 28 executive session. The approved record was amended the day before, however. The official description of the meeting was changed to say Kitsos was given a pay raise "as full settlement of the pending litigation." The earlier version said it was for "full settlement of the contract."
The Open Meeting Law includes nine exceptions that allow government bodies to meet in private. One of them is to discuss litigation. However, guidelines on the law issued by the attorney general's office state that "proposed litigation is not covered by this exception unless it is clearly and imminently threatened." The law does not provide a definition for "imminently threatened."
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