Open meeting law complaints filed against Old Rochester School District

Feb 21, 2023

MATTAPOISETT — Controversy has once again found its way to the Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee as a Mattapoisett resident filed three complaints that the committee violated the state’s open meeting law by accepting the donation of controversial books without holding a public meeting.

In a press release sent to Sippican Week by Mattapoisett Resident Kathleen LeClair, who also filed the complaints, she and other concerned community members “support efforts against racism,” but believe that some of the books donated by the group Tri-Town Against Racism “may contain sexually explicit content and other material that is inappropriate for children.”

LeClair had no comment when contacted by Sippican Week. 

LeClair also claimed that the School Committee violated a policy that requires public gifts to the school district receive approval before being accepted. The complaint alleged that books donated to the District in 2020 by the nonprofit group Tri-Town Against Racism were not approved in a public meeting. 

According to School Committee member Margaret McSweeney, who also sits on the policy subcommittee, it was not the School Committee’s job to accept non-monetary gifts when Tri-Town Against Racism donated the books in 2020.

At the time, it was the superintendent’s responsibility. The policy changed this past January. 

“Our policy [stated] that this donation was something that was delegated to the superintendent and that our job [was] to accept financial donations and approve them,” said McSweeny. “We have faith in our administration to do their job well.”

The new policy, ratified on Jan. 19, 2023, reads that “all grants and gifts to the district shall be reviewed and accepted by the [Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee] before expenditure or use.”

According to Nelson, “any book that the district has received as a gift, whether it was accepted by the School Committee or directly by the schools, has been vetted thoroughly by our school librarians regarding appropriateness.”

In the complaints, LeClair alleged that accurate meeting minutes are not available from the Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee’s equity subcommittee from Oct. 5, 2020 through June 21, 2022, and from the policy subcommittee from November 2020 through September 2022. 

Meeting minutes for the equity subcommittee and policy subcommittee are not publicly listed on the School Committee’s website. Old Rochester Regional School District Superintendent Mike Nelson confirmed that the district and School Committee are aware of the open meeting law complaints.  

According to Tri-Town Against Racism President Alison Noyce, the organization has donated “dozens” of books to the schools, mostly in 2020.

“We've donated books to every school in the ORR district,” Noyce said, “and all of those books were either anti-racist or featured racial diversity.”

Last year, formal complaints were filed by members of the Tri-Town Community against 10 books in the Old Rochester Regional High School and Junior High School libraries for what some called sexually explicit language and imagery.

The books are currently under review. 

“There is a process and policy by which these books will be reviewed to determine if they are appropriate for our school library,” said Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee Chair Michelle Smith during a Dec. 14 meeting of the School Committee.

According to the school’s website, when complaints are issued about a book, it is the job of the Standards Committee to assess the books and vote. The Standards Committee consists of members of the School Committee, the superintendent, the principal and assistant principal, any teacher using the material and the appropriate coordinator from the school district. 

“This apparent misconduct should concern every member of our community,” read LeClair’s press release, “because parents should know what types of books their children are being exposed to in school libraries.” 

According to the Open Meeting Law violation forms, LeClair is requesting that the School Committee “provide minutes containing the committee approvals of each book donation made by [Tri-Town Against Racism] from June 2020 to date,” and that “approvals should contain an accurate list of all book titles donated and the date of each donation.”

According to the press release, concerned citizens “want transparency and accountability from [the] school committee.”

Now, the School Committee has 14 business days to respond to the complaint in writing and include a description of what it is doing to address the complaint. LeClair can file a copy of the original complaints with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Division of Open Government if she is not satisfied with the School Committee’s response.