Springfield School Committee retreat OK under law, but questionable
Posted by Jeffrey Roy on March 22, 2010
The Springfield School Committee’s recent retreat at a Berkshire resort has raised some eyebrows. But the gathering at Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club in Lenox, is not in violation of the state Open Meeting Law, according to Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett.
Over the weekend, the Springfield School Committee went to the resort for training to be guided by the Texas-based Center for Reform of School Systems. According to an article in the Springfield Republican, Donald R. McAdams, who is president, chairman and founder of the Center for Reform of School Systems, was scheduled to lead the weekend training. The stated mission of the center, which is located in Houston, “is to teach school board members and superintendents how to transform their districts to deliver high student achievement.”
“The purpose of the training is to strengthen the effectiveness of the superintendent-school committee governance team…. no official business or deliberations will be taking place,” Superintendent of Schools Alan J. Ingram wrote in a letter to DA Bennett. In response, Bennett wrote: “You have indicated that there will be no official business or deliberations regarding the school committee and you have set forth distinct and proper purposes for your event. These plans do not involve any open meeting law violation. Good luck!”
According to the newspaper report, Pamela H. Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, and Robert J. Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, both cautioned that the committee needs to be careful in what they talk about this weekend. In his Media Log blog, Ambrogi noted that “the school committee is treading on dangerous turf here. If they are huddled together over the course of a couple days, with a facilitator whose agenda is school reform, discussing this all day, sharing cocktails and meals in the evenings, it seems highly unlikely that they can avoid discussing school policy and business.”
In Franklin, we have always been cautious about meetings involving members of the Franklin School Committee. To begin, we do not conduct retreats at resorts, but we do participate in annual self-evaluations consistent with School Committee policy. These events are held in public buildings in town and are posted in accordance with the Open Meeting Law. Members of the public and press typically attend.
There is indeed value in reviewing policies, practices and procedures, and retreats are helpful ways to measure progress. But doing so outside of the public eye, and in a resort environment when communities are cash-starved, is not an effective way of building trust. In this instance, the critics are justified in calling Springfield’s retreat into question.