Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 19 with a comment from Meg Tyler regarding criticism from the Hopkinton Teachers Association.
There were some tense moments at Thursday night’s School Committee meeting — even before the vote to lift the mask mandate starting Feb. 28.
As Nancy Cavanaugh gave her report as chair, she mentioned that the number of emails received spiked after Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement that the statewide mandatory mask policy would be rescinded on Feb. 28. She noted that there was “a clear majority” asking that the mask mandate be ended in town.
Member Meg Tyler asked to make a comment about the count of public comment emails, saying that a petition about the choice to recommend that only state and federal holidays be included in the school calendar was omitted. She said there were 25 emails in favor of this as well as 25 signatures on the petition. The calendar was voted in at the last regular School Committee meeting. Eleven emails were in support of including other cultural holidays.
“My math ain’t perfect,” Tyler said, “but I felt it was like deceptive numbering in the last meeting.”
“I would counter that with I had no intention at all to be deceptive,” Cavanaugh replied.
“Selective,” Tyler interjected. “You curated what you read.”
Cavanaugh recalled 30 public comments submitted, and that she pulled from them a representative sample of equal amounts of pro and con opinions about the calendar as well as the mask policy.
“Well, you read aloud something that we had not even seen defaming our character,” Tyler charged, referring to a scathing criticism of Markey and Tyler from the Hopkinton Teachers Association. “So it was very curated.”
Tyler and fellow School Committee Member Joe Markey were accused by a resident of violating the state’s open meeting law by holding a Zoom meeting with a resident on Jan. 30 to rally opposition to the mask mandate and the more-inclusive school calendar (on Tuesday they were cleared of the charge). A letter from Becky Abate, president of the Hopkinton Teachers Association, regarding this charge was read aloud by Cavanaugh at the meeting, although she left out the names of the members in question.
Added Tyler in a later email to the Independent: “The commentary from the HTA was based on conjecture, not fact, and it contained defamatory and potentially damaging statements about myself and another colleague on the School Committee. My professionalism and ethics are at the heart of everything I do as an educator myself and as a volunteer for this town; assertions otherwise are both wrong and insulting.”
Cavanaugh said that there was a great number of emails anticipated because of the topics, so letters were read aloud rather than having residents use a Zoom raised hand feature. Because of the volume, she said she and Vice Chair Amanda Fargiano took a representative sample.
“What we have done in the past is we have tried to select from the categories people chose,” Cavanaugh said, with two on each side regarding the mask policy and one each on the calendar topic. “There were a couple that were specific to the open meeting law case. What our past practice has been to allow the HTA to make a comment without us making a comment one way or the other.”
Tyler countered that the practice of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees “is not to defame your fellow committee members in order to create some question of the integrity of the committee.”
“I would just say that it’s important for the public to know that, when we do these public comments, the chair is the one who curates them,” she continued. “We are not allowed to choose which ones are read.”
Cavanaugh clarified that the chair and vice chair chose to proceed as they did because, with the open meeting law, the five members could not have gotten together to review the letters without posting that meeting in advance.
Markey asked that an upcoming agenda topic be “to review norms and protocols,” which he said he has requested before.
“I would very much like to review norms and protocols,” Cavanaugh said, requesting that a facilitator conduct it.
“No,” Markey said. “I don’t think so, I think an apology would be in order. If I were chair and a slanderous letter came in, I would separate it from the political vitriol in which it’s wrapped. That we would investigate the [open meeting law], but that we would not tolerate attacks on members of this committee. I think any good leader would do that.”
Going back to Tyler’s statement, Cavanaugh said she would look at the count of emails to see if she had made an error.
Shortly thereafter, Hopkinton Middle School Principal Alan Keller was about to make a presentation when Markey asked why the members had to wear masks at the meeting. He questioned if it were a School Committee mandate or one by the Board of Health.
The chair responded that, because masking is still the school policy, that is why she was wearing one.
Markey also questioned Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh as well as the head of the Board of Health and Health Department Director Shaun McAuliffe, who said they are highly recommended indoors.
“I still don’t know which authority is causing us to wear masks,” Markey said.
Markey and Tyler eventually removed their masks for the remainder of the meeting.