Unredacted Executive Session minutes show how former Superintendent Glenn Brand was pressured into resigning

Following the unprecedented and overwhelmingly negative reaction by Acton and Boxborough residents to the May 18, 2017 surprise announcement of AB School Superintendent Glenn Brand’s resignation due to “educational and operational philosophies” that were “not aligned,” the AB Regional School Committee (SC) held its next meeting in the High School auditorium on May 24. The new Chair, Amy Krishnamurthy, and the previous Chair, Mary Brolin, refused to answer any questions about the reasons for Dr. Brand’s resignation, repeatedly citing “legal reasons” that prevented them from providing any further information (the video is on ActonTV at http://actontv.org/on-demand/post-video/school-committee-meeting-5-24-17-hd-version). Many of the hundreds of citizens and parents at the meeting expressed anger, bewilderment, and frustration at what they were hearing from our School leaders.

The release the next morning by the School District of the “Separation and Release Agreement” signed by Dr. Brand and Brolin showed that the only constraint was a “Non-disparagement” clause. It didn’t make much sense that discussing philosophical differences could be considered “disparagement” by either the School Committee or Dr. Brand.

Acton Forum has obtained the unredacted secret minutes of the two School Committee executive sessions (ES) where former Superintendent Glenn Brand was constructively forced to resign by the actions of a small group of School Committee leaders, all current or former Chairpersons. Links to the two meetings’ minutes are below. These two ES meetings were held on April 26 and May 2, 2017, and indicate that four School Committee members seemed to orchestrate the circumstances to get Brand to resign. According to the minutes, they are Kristina Rychlik and Amy Krishnamurthy from Acton and Mary Brolin and Maria Neyland from Boxborough. (Ms. Neyland has completed her term on the School Committee and is now a member of the Boxborough Board of Selectmen.)

Reading the minutes, the real reason for the refusal to answer questions at the May 24th public meeting becomes very clear. Dr. Brand was essentially pushed to resign by these four individuals, possibly with the help or support of others.

As these Executive Session minutes clearly show, this group of ringleaders managed to create such a “toxic” environment for the Superintendent that Dr. Brand evidently decided that he had no choice but to leave. The group’s efforts included writing “confidential” performance memos, interviewing Brand’s subordinates to find problems and collecting complaints about his leadership; but, at the same time, giving Brand good public performance reviews over the past two years. Last year, the School Committee extended Brand’s contract through June 2018.

Recent interviews of Superintendent Brand’s subordinates were done by three School Committee members (Brolin, Krishnamurthy, and Rychlik); it is not clear whether any other School Committee members knew about them. The subject was never on the School Committee agenda and, as noted in the minutes of the April 26 executive session, several members of the School Committee were surprised to hear about it.

There were several documents referenced in these minutes that Acton Forum does not have (but will now request). Most would consider some of these documents part of an evaluation process of the Superintendent, a process that is supposed to be public, according to the OML and DESE regulations (see https://www.masc.org/images/pdf/475_MASC_Guide_to_Superintendent_Evaluation_2012.pdf, page 10).

The School Committee agenda of May 18, a full two weeks after the School Committee decided to force Brand to resign, continues to list the Superintendent evaluation on the agenda (see Item 19 on the agenda here: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/SC_Agenda_05182017.pdf) This appears to show extremely bad faith as everyone on the School Committee knew that Brand was going to be leaving, and no evaluation would be done, yet they continued to put out public notices to the contrary. This is just one example of an attempt to mislead and misdirect the public about what was happening behind closed doors.

After Brand announced that he would resign, the School Committee’s posted agenda of May 24 listed a “possible vote” to hire Marie Altieri as Acting/Interim Superintendent, bypassing a search process. (See agenda here: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/SC_agenda_052417.pdf ). The agenda even contemplated a vote to give the Interim some time to do the job and then decide whether to do a future Superintendent search, which implies the possibility of not even needing a search. But the community uproar made the School Committee reconsider, and now they have formed an Interim Superintendent Search Committee and plan to do a full search for the permanent Superintendent. Marie Altieri has been named Acting Superintendent and has said she will not be the Interim Superintendent, but she is expected to apply again for the permanent post.

In our view, Dr. Glenn Brand has acted blamelessly under these difficult circumstances and the minutes appear to be full vindication for his actions. Keeping Brand on and working with him if there were any perceived shortcomings should have been the goal, but for a small group of insiders, that apparently was not the objective. They wanted him out--the sooner, the better.

WHAT WE LEARN FROM THE EXECUTIVE SESSION MINUTES

During the two Executive Sessions, The School Committee decided to pay Brand for the entire year left on his contract, plus health benefits, costing taxpayers over $200,000. According to one member, seven out of 11 School Committee members did not think Brand should leave; but with the ringleaders threatening to terminate Brand, give him a poor performance review, or put a letter of reprimand in his personnel file, Brand evidently decided he’d had enough of the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District. He eventually made it clear he could no longer stay past his contractual term which ended in June, 2018. At that point, several members who had been looking to find a way to keep Brand as Superintendent gave up and instead worked on an equitable severance package. 10 School Committee members eventually voted to accept the settlement that was reached.

So what happened to bring the School Committee and Brand into such an insurmountable conflict in just a couple of weeks that Brand evidently felt that leaving was his only viable option? And how did all this occur without the public having any awareness that his performance was even an issue—at least for some SC members?

THE PRETEXT FOR THE FIRST EXECUTIVE SESSION

Public business of the School Committee is supposed to be done in open meetings. Members are not allowed to “deliberate” pending issues among a quorum outside of a posted meeting, so that discussions and decisions are made in front of members of the public. Violating the Open Meeting Law is serious, and the AB School Committee has been found to be in violation several times over the past few years.

Obviously, some members of the School Committee do not believe in this public process, because they were looking for a way to talk to Brand about his job performance behind closed doors, and once they did that, they could bully Brand into feeling that he was unwanted and unsupported. The four ringleaders are evidently very good at these political maneuvers and the pretext for the first Executive Session happened on March 17, 2017.

According to the Minutes (which are written and approved by the School, so only tell the School’s side of the story, not Dr. Brand’s), Brand got a call from a parent whose child had allegedly been subject to an unwanted advance by a teacher in 2008. The minutes are unclear whether the parent just learned of the incident or just decided to report it, but the parent called and Brand knew about the incident on Friday, March 17. At that time, according to the minutes, he knew the name of the teacher but not the student. He called the School’s attorney for legal advice on Monday, March 20. At the end of the day on Monday, the teacher was removed from the classroom.

About ten days later, Dr. Brand discussed the circumstances of this incident with School Committee Chair Mary Brolin. Brolin had already written one memo about Brand’s performance that was not publicly released. Brolin decided that waiting until Monday to speak with legal counsel was improper and an indication of Brand’s poor decision-making. According to the minutes, she met with Brand on April 4, and gave him a second memo listing his shortcomings. She told him that he had two options: resign with six months’ notice, or she will recommend to the School Committee to terminate his employment with the required six-months’ notice. There are no indications of further discussions until SC Chair Brolin called the April 26 Executive Session, “to consider the discipline or dismissal of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.”

As provided by the Open Meeting Law (OML), Dr. Brand attended the executive session with his lawyer and a stenographer. The description of the circumstances of the alleged triggering incident took up about two pages of the six pages of minutes, while the rest of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of Brand’s performance, threats about bad reviews and letters of reprimand, and other matters unrelated to the alleged incident including comments by several School Committee members about their lack of any previous knowledge of the supposed gravity of Brand’s problems.

A majority of the Committee seemed to support Dr. Brand and wanted him to stay, but the cabal insisted that Brand had to go and they must have convinced him that he would never feel comfortable working with these members and so he stopped trying to stay and focused on the best way to leave. The executive session lasted about four hours. A second meeting was then planned to negotiate Brand’s departure.

In our view, based on what is reported in the minutes, which are likely to be an incomplete and perhaps one-sided story, Brand’s handling of this incident appears reasonable. The actions he took were timely and showed a measured response given the nature of the allegation, the many years since the alleged incident occurred, and the decision not to press charges. Waiting one business day to call for advice is not an unreasonable delay when there are still facts that Brand said he needed to consider. Brand’s actions, as related by the minutes, are therefore not an indication of poor decision-making or leadership and there was no cause to hold an executive session and threaten him with termination if he didn’t resign.

The School Committee took no disciplinary action. Brolin admitted at the start of the May 2 meeting that a majority of the Committee felt “there was not an issue severe enough to terminate Dr. Brand’s employment,” and the School’s attorney also made it clear during the May 24th public meeting in the High School auditorium that Brand did nothing wrong.

There is no information to show that Dr. Brand’s handling of this situation put children at risk. There is no suggestion in the minutes that Dr. Brand should have removed the teacher on that Friday, only that he should have called his attorney on Friday. These are two very different options. Dealing with an incident that allegedly happened nine years prior might need a bit more thought and research than one that happened last week. In the minutes, Brand clearly objected to the insinuation that he acted wrongly. “Dr. Brand was very upset that he was being portrayed as not caring about a child’s welfare. Action needed to be taken in a measured way and he felt he had acted appropriately given the information he had.”

This complaint about Dr. Brand’s performance should have been handled during the scheduled annual Superintendent evaluation. Working outside of that process, in secret no less, was a grave error and in our view, a clear violation.

We have made it a bit harder for the "bots" to automatically index the minutes. To read the April 26, 2017 Executive Session minutes, copy and paste the link to follow in your Internet browser but add ".pdf" to the file name at the end: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/SC_ES_04262017

SECOND EXECUTIVE SESSION

Once it was determined that Brand was going to leave, the second Executive Session held on May 2 was to negotiate the circumstances of his departure.

Brand’s attorney attempted to present materials to the Committee, perhaps to dispute the allegations made by the School Committee leaders during the previous meeting, but because the stated purpose of the second ES was to conduct “contract negotiations with nonunion personnel,” the School determined that these additional documents could not be reviewed or discussed. So, evidently, any additional attempts that were perhaps to try to work things out were disallowed. One might conclude that the leaders of the School Committee were not interested in finding a way out, they just wanted Brand to leave.

One Committee member (unnamed) stated that Brand “wanted to negotiate an end to the relationship and that is why the current session was posted” as it was. Brolin stated that a majority of the SC did not feel like there was an issue strong enough to terminate Dr. Brand’s employment, but there was potential for a reprimand.

SC member and former Chair Brigid Bieber advocated for paying Brand for the full 2017-2018 school year “because as a Committee they failed him by not giving him complete written constructive feedback through the formal evaluation process,” according to the minutes.

The Committee decided to offer Brand six months of severance if he left immediately, with no public performance evaluation. Since it was clear that several members of the SC wanted to give Brand a negative evaluation, Brand’s strategy appeared to shift to avoid such an outcome. But when the School Committee members pushing to oust Brand tried to use a bad performance review against him to get him to take six-months pay instead of payment through the end of his contract, Brand refused.

“Maria Neyland stated that the response felt like a threat because Dr. Brand and his attorney don’t care about the evaluation process enough to give up money,” reports the minutes.

Brand offered to stay on. “Atty Mandel explained that [Brand’s] counter offer was no change to the current state of affairs. They were offering to just let the contract be carried out as is through June 2018.”

Bieber said that “because the Committee gave him proficient ratings with feedback on what he needed to work on in his previous evaluations, as should have been done in this process, Brigid wants to pay in full.” (Emphasis by Acton Forum.)

Brolin said that if they waited until October and then discussed Brand’s performance in an open meeting, “that…could be very difficult for Dr. Brand. Professional competence and performance are not reasons for an executive session (as in October), unlike reasons of discipline or dismissal which are proper executive session reasons.”

And yet the School Committee had just spent several hours discussing Dr. Brand’s “professional competence and performance” in two executive sessions.

To read the May 2, 2017 Executive Session minutes, copy and paste the link to follow but add ".pdf" to the file name at the end: http://www.actonforum.com/sites/default/files/SC_ES_05022017

NEXT STEPS

We call for the immediate resignation of the four “ringleaders” from public service. Their actions have damaged our excellent school system valued by parents and all members of our communities; negatively affected staff morale; reduced the chances of attracting top candidates for the permanent Superintendent position; undermined the plans to address the condition of the School buildings; led to the resignation of a well-liked and effective School leader; and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

We can’t know for certain their motivations (we have our theories) but what the minutes show is that these four individuals, perhaps with the support of a couple of others, created such a “toxic” environment that Dr. Brand felt he must resign. Up to seven of the School Committee members initially wanted to work with Brand and have him stay on, according to one member as quoted in the minutes, and that majority view should have resulted in a compromise. Instead, the secretive nature of the forum chosen to discuss these matters, the presence of lawyers, the threats, and the restrictions on what could be discussed (which were obviously violated) created a very difficult situation. Mediation, perhaps, would have been the way to work this out, but that was evidently an impossible option because of the way this was mishandled.

In our opinion, the incident involving a parent’s phone call to Dr. Brand in March leaves many unanswered questions. First, these minutes were approved by the School Committee in executive session but not Brand. Second, this appeared to be a pretext to hold an executive session for the dismissal of Dr. Brand. This is reinforced by the accumulation of probably negative and non-public information on Brand’s performance outside of the statutory review process.

Apparently, when Dr. Brand realized he would be battling at least four members who would be pushing to give him a poor review and not extend his contract again, this became a “no-win” situation in which the supporters of Dr. Brand on the School Committee could not prevail. Ironically, this is probably a textbook case of why these types of discussions should be done in open session because it is very unlikely the ringleaders would have felt empowered to press their attack like they did if they had to do so in public.

We also are very concerned that the School Committee apparently tried to pressure Brand into leaving by effectively threatening to make his annual Superintendent’s evaluation negative, thereby forcing him to leave immediately rather than fight for his rights under his contract. Had the concerns about Dr. Brand’s performance been expressed and dealt with as part of the annual Superintendent evaluation, which is the way things are supposed to be done according to state law, perhaps any actual shortcomings could have been areas for improvement. Dr. Brand never got the chance to make any improvements if any were needed. That was unfair and contrary to the Superintendent evaluation process as described by the DESE.

And with the School Committee’s recent history of hiding their actions behind executive sessions, and being able to avoid public disclosure literally for years, these members probably felt their undermining activities would realistically never see the light of day. As proof, compare the redacted minutes as published in the article “Transparency” at the link below to the unredacted version now available. How many redactions are outside the stated purpose of the justification for the executive session?

Acton Forum will be exploring the many probable Open Meeting Law violations in the School Committee’s conduct over the past two months and will decide how best to help with the enforcement of the law. In the meantime, here is what the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Law guidelines say about intentional violations of the OML: “Upon finding a violation of the Open Meeting Law, the Attorney General may impose a civil penalty upon a public body of not more than $1,000 for each intentional violation. G.L. c. 30A, § 23(c)(4).” (Source: http://www.mass.gov/ago/government-resources/open-meeting-law/attorney-generals-open-meeting-law-guide.html#Intentional).

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PREVIOUS ACTON FORUM ARTICLES ON THIS TOPIC:

Glenn Brand resigns from AB School District (May 18)
http://www.actonforum.com/story/glenn-brand-resigns-ab-school-district

School Committee Chair refuses to speak with Acton Forum (May 20)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/school-committee-chair-refuses-speak-acton-forum

Questions the School refuses to hear, let alone answer (May 22)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/questions-school-refuses-hear-let-alone-answer

Altieri poised to take over top job at Acton-Boxborough Schools (May 22)
http://www.actonforum.com/story/altieri-poised-take-over-top-job-acton-boxborough-schools

My concerns validated over full regionalization of Schools (June 6)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/my-concerns-validated-over-full-regionalization-schools

What is "disparagement"? (June 6)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/what-disparagement

Time to move on in Superintendent search (June 6)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/time-move-superintendent-search

You are invited to attend tonight's School Committee meeting! (June 6)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/you-are-invited-attend-tonights-school-committee-meeting

Let go of your anger (June 6)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/let-go-your-anger

I made a mistake (June 7)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/i-made-mistake

Let's provide free housing for our new Superintendent (June 13)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/lets-provide-free-housing-our-new-superintendent

Open Letter to the AB Regional School Committee (June 13)
http://www.actonforum.com/story/open-letter-ab-regional-school-committee

Acton Forum files open meeting law complaint (June 26)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/acton-forum-files-open-meeting-law-complaint

Acton Forum files SECOND Open Meeting Law complaint (June 29)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/acton-forum-files-second-open-meeting-law-complaint

Transparency (July 14)
http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/transparency

School District releases Baum letters (July 17)
http://www.actonforum.com/story/school-district-releases-baum-letters

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Comments

Over 2,000 reads so far

Our article on the true reasons for Glenn Brand's resignation has garnered well over 2,000 page views, less than 24 hours after posting. The number of unique visitors has been 1,724. That is a record for Acton Forum and several times the number of people who typically attend a Town Meeting, for example. Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

Thank You

Allen, Charlie, A special thank you is due for your efforts. Its been painful to watch this saga unfold, but your efforts have helped to reveal the underlying story that fuels it. Please keep up the good work, and know that your diligence is appreciated, regardless of the outcome. Mark Munson

4,000 page views!

Acton Forum's article on the release of the executive session minutes which explains the real reason Superintendent Glenn Brand resigned has been read over 4,000 times as of the afternoon of July 25th. Of those, over 3,000 are unique pageviews.

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and publisher of the Acton Forum.

Ditto thanks

I want to express appreciation as well for your diligent attention to this sordid matter. It's as if the SC reached into every single Actonian's pocket and removed at least $10 to pay for a year's salary for no work.

Thanks

Thanks for publishing this. I am glad I posted the initial signature campaign appeal out here.