The Huber-O'Connell mystery

Tue, 2015-09-08

Six months ago, Acton Forum published what has turned out to be the first of many articles about the very unusual, and still unexplained, sudden departure of Liza Huber-O’Connell, a senior school administrator and 30-year employee of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School system. Our interest in getting the facts about it was prompted by several messages from Acton Forum readers who noticed she had left in the middle of the school year and wanted to know what happened.

We took the obvious next step--we asked School Superintendent Glenn Brand for the facts. He refused to give us any information, citing “personal,” “confidentiality,” and "attorney-client privilege" reasons. Separately, Acton Forum had asked for and received calendar 2014 salary data for School and Town employees, as we have done for several years. (All that information is posted on our Links and Documents page). Checking this information, we found that Ms. Huber-O'Connell had received her full pay, at least through December, 2014, although she had left the school system sometime in September or October, 2014. This seemed strange, so we again asked Superintendent Brand about her status. He confirmed that she was being paid but refused to explain this unusual arrangement. Neither the standard administrator contract nor any school policy that we could find provides for a paid leave of absence of this apparent duration.

Massachusetts' Public Records Law requires that copies of public records be provided (at a reasonable cost) to anyone who requests them. We filed a request for documents related to Ms. Huber’s departure, but were first told nothing would be released. The school hired a law firm just to oppose our requests and our appeal. (This law firm has been paid at least $15,000 so far.)

After the intervention by the Secretary of State's office, the School said some documents were not going to be released and quoted a cost of $245 for the rest, which would be redacted for content that was again personnel-related. We decided to do two things: appeal the refusal to provide some documents to the Supervisor of Records, and to (reluctantly) pay the $245 to see what we would get.

Along the way we did get one piece of information from the schools: Ms. Huber-O'Connell would “retire” at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, and would continue to be paid her full salary until then.

Several months and several additional information requests later, we still have not received any information to explain Ms. Huber-O'Connell’s departure. The documents we received were useless and almost totally redacted, and the documents during the time of her departure were withheld in their entirety.

We believe when over $100,000 in public money is spent, the public deserves to know how and why. The stonewalling by the School when spending public funds is unacceptable. And our appeal for transparency to the School Committee has fallen on deaf ears. Apparently no one in the administration or any of our elected public School Committee members feel that taxpayers get to know how their money is spent, and if it is being spent wisely.

This is what we know so far:

* Ms. Huber-O'Connell had been employed by the AB School system for more than 30 years, was the Director of Pupil Services, started the 2014-2015 school year attending School Committee meetings as administrators in her position do, then abruptly left the AB school system sometime in September, 2014, without any advance notice, announcement by the administration or the customary arrangements for a successor, spawning much speculation and many rumors. Her name was removed from the school website shortly thereafter and an Interim Director of Pupil Services was appointed retroactive to September 5, 2014.

* Ms. Huber-O'Connell continued to be paid her full salary, and probably benefits, through the end of the school year, which means that she received at least $100,000 for not working. Our request for her settlement agreement (called a Severance Agreement by the School) has been denied and we have appealed. This would tell us if she was given more than the $100,000 in salary.

* Paying an employee for not working is highly unusual. It is not a contactural requirement, there is no School Committee policy, and there was no action by the School Committee in any public meeting to authorize this (very substantial) expenditure of the public funds. (The School Committee did hold an executive session apparently on this topic, but our request for the minutes has been...wait for it...denied. We have appealed.)

* The School has gone to extraordinary lengths to block our request for public documents, spending a lot of money with an expensive law firm just for this purpose.

* The Dedham school system announced the hiring of Ms. Huber-O'Connell as Director of Special Education for this school year after an exhaustive search. They called it a “fantastic” hiring. Ms. Huber-O’Connell apparently changed her mind about retiring.

We are waiting for the Supervisor of Records and the Attorney General’s office to rule on our multiple appeals of the School’s stonewalling, and do not want to speculate about this situation. From the above facts, however, it seems reasonable to question why a school system would pay a small fortune to an employee for not working after it forced the long-term employee to leave suddenly and without any explanation--and then to create a confidential “separation agreement” which the school then used to refuse to comply with the Public Records Law using language to suggest that they are protecting the privacy of the employee. That may be true, but to us, it looks like they are protecting themselves against public disclosure of a bad decision which is costing the taxpayers a lot of money. We will continue to look for the true answer as our numerous appeals slowly make it through the system at the state level.

FOR THE NEXT ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES: Anything wrong with a public employee making $500 per hour?
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/anything-wrong-public-employee-ma...

PREVIOUS ARTICLES ON THIS TOPIC

March 7, 2015: Former School Administrator continues to receive salary despite not working:
http://www.actonforum.com/story/former-school-administrator-continues-re...

March 13, 2015: School hires new law firm to avoid disclosure:
http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-hires-new-law-firm-avoid-disclosure

March 17, 2015: Law Firm gives AB School District Deep Discount:
http://www.actonforum.com/story/law-firm-gives-ab-school-district-deep-d...

May 28, 2015: Acton Forum wins round one with school district: http://www.actonforum.com/story/acton-forum-wins-round-one-school-district

June 9, 2015: School defies Supervisor of Records, refuses to produce index without $245 fee: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/school-defies-supervisor-records-...

June 13, 2015: Open Letter to the AB Regional School Committee: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/open-letter-ab-regional-school-co...

June 17, 2015: School has secret settlement agreement with Huber: http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-has-secret-settlement-agreement-h...

July 13, 2015: School ordered to provide Executive Session minutes to Attorney General: http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-ordered-provide-executive-session...

July 27, 2015: School releases two settlement agreements, withholds one: http://actonforum.com/story/school-releases-two-settlement-agreements-wi...

August 2, 2015: Meet Acton's highest paid employee: http://www.actonforum.com/story/meet-actons-highest-paid-employee

August 23, 2015: 'Fantastic' school administrator hired by Dedham: http://www.actonforum.com/story/fantastic-school-administrator-hired-dedham

August 25, 2015: School continues to hide documents: http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-continues-hide-documents

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