Editor’s note: This story was updated with a statement from Joe Markey.
The School Committee at its Thursday night meeting responded to a complaint by a Hopkinton resident against two School Committee members, Joe Markey and Meg Tyler, saying that they were in violation of the state’s open meeting law while discussing committee policy with a resident who is planning to run for the School Committee.
Members voted unanimously to allow Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh to conduct an investigation.
Lori Nickerson filed the complaint with the state’s attorney general’s office on Jan. 31, the day after the alleged violation occurred. In her statement, Nickerson said that Markey and Tyler participated in a Zoom conversation with resident Christopher Melton. She said it was in violation of open meeting law because “the purpose of the Zoom meeting was to discuss and deliberate strategy regarding upcoming School Committee business.” She charged that neither the Zoom meeting nor its topics were publicly announced.
The statement, included in the committee’s agenda packet, described Melton as “a potential School Committee candidate in the 2022 election.” It went on to say that Markey and Tyler asked him “to solicit emails from Hopkinton residents” that would go to the School Committee members to influence their votes regarding the proposed school calendar for the 2022-23 school year as well as the lifting of the mask mandate. Both items were discussed during Thursday night’s three-hour meeting, where the new school calendar with additional holidays was approved despite Markey’s opposition.
Markey had made a motion at the meeting to lift the mask mandate as of March 7 because of new information from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) indicating that all of Hopkinton’s public schools are now eligible for the mask off-ramping policy because their vaccination rates for staff and students are over 80 percent. Tyler seconded the motion. After discussion where other members said they would be more comfortable voting on the policy closer to that date, Markey withdrew the motion, while Tyler withdrew her seconding of it.
The Hopkinton Teachers Association submitted a letter to the committee (as well as the Independent) criticizing the two members’ actions.
“Mr. Markey and Ms.Tyler have chosen to operate independently from the committee on which they sit,” charged HTA President Becky Abate on behalf of the union’s executive board.
Nancy Cavanaugh read the letter during the public comment period but left out the names of the two School Committee members.
“[Markey], and Ms.Tyler, have acted in the shadows of private Facebook groups to advance their position on a topic already so divisive to this town,” Abate continued. “In doing so they have created a very public divide between themselves and their colleagues. Mr. Markey has frequently commended the School Committee for remaining ‘unified’ despite their differing views. It is disheartening to see that unification be weakened at a time when it is so critical.”
In a statement Friday, Markey defended himself, noting his history of civic engagement and consensus building on complex issues in Hopkinton going back 18 years.
“As an elected volunteer, I’m very well aware of the rights, limits and duties I have in communicating with people,” he stated. “By engaging and building ties with the community, committee members can facilitate civic engagement and increase committee awareness of the full range of community sentiment on important issues.”
As discussion of the issue began, Nancy Cavanaugh said that this was “a little bit of an awkward process for all of us” and the first such complaint that has arisen during her tenure on the committee.
She called it “an opportunity to rebuild public trust” by encouraging transparency in the process. There is a legally mandated process that needs to be followed, including the investigation and report of the findings.
When the chair asked if the matter should be discussed in open or executive session, Tyler was the first to say that it should be discussed openly. Markey agreed.
After the date of the filing, the committee has 14 business days to respond to the complainant and to the attorney general. The deadline for this response is Feb. 18, the day after the next School Committee meeting.
An investigation about the allegations needs to be undertaken by law. Once the investigation is complete, a remedial response will be drafted. The draft of the response would need to be reviewed by the committee before its submission to the AG’s office.
“Given that there are only two people in the meeting — I’m assuming you’re reading the script accurately — regardless of the merits of the claim, is an investigation required?” asked Markey. “Or in some cases do we look at the facts and determine that two is not a quorum.”
“My instinct as a colleague on the School Committee would be, ‘Of course nobody would do that,’ ” the chair said, noting that there would have to be an indication of “a serial conversation,” such as via email. “But I also think that it might benefit both of you and all of us to have a transparent way to be able to say definitively we looked at all the facts” to determine that there was not serial communication.
Markey said as soon as he was made aware of the complaint, he brought information to Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh’s office.
“I would say absolutely let the public process play out,” he said. “As elected volunteers, we’re all very well aware of our rights and limits and duties to communicate with people.”
He noted that he has been a community volunteer for 18 years, citing his work on Hopkinton’s master plan as one instance of his service. “But with that experience, I have also learned to retain my humility and trust and respect for the public process and for fellow volunteers.”
Markey also said he wanted “to help defuse the situation for the public” because citizens have a right to complain while the committee has the obligation to respond.
Tyler said she was happy to delegate the responsibility of an investigation to the superintendent. Superintendent Cavanaugh asked that Human Resources Director Kimberly Pulnik assist her in this matter.
The chair said she met with one of the committee’s attorney to see how to proceed.
“I wanted to make sure that the process was fair and transparent and to build public trust,” she said. “I think it hurts us if people can’t see what we’re doing and they’re wondering what happened.”
She added that she had seen a screenshot of what had been posted about it on social media but could not confirm the source.
“It’s all there,” Markey said of the information he brought forward. “It’s been there since Monday or Tuesday.”
After the investigation is conducted, an attorney will review it to make sure proper procedures were followed before the School Committee discusses the superintendent’s findings at the meeting on Feb. 17.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Tyler.