Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with a statement from Joe Markey.
The school committee at its Thursday night meeting responded to a complaint by a Hopkinton resident against two school committee members, Joe Markey and Meg Tyler, claiming they were violating the Open Meetings Act of state while discussing committee policy with a resident who is considering running for the school committee.
Members voted unanimously to allow Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh to conduct an investigation.
Lori Nickerson filed the complaint with the state attorney general’s office on January 31, the day after the alleged breach. In his statement, Nickerson said Markey and Tyler participated in a Zoom conversation with resident Christopher Melton. She said it was in violation of the Open Meetings Act because “the purpose of the Zoom meeting was to discuss and deliberate strategy regarding the school committee’s upcoming business.” She claimed that neither the Zoom meeting nor its topics have been publicly announced.
The statement, included in the committee’s agenda file, described Melton as “a potential school board candidate for the 2022 election.” He went on to say that Markey and Tyler had asked him to “solicit emails from Hopkinton residents” that would go to school committee members to influence their votes regarding the proposed school calendar for the 2022-23 school year as well as the waiver. of the mask mandate. Both points were discussed at the three-hour meeting on Thursday evening, where the new school calendar with additional holidays was approved despite opposition from Markey.
Markey had made a motion at the meeting to lift the mask mandate effective March 7 due to new information from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) indicating that all public schools in Hopkinton are now eligible for the mask off policy because their vaccination rates for staff and students are over 80%. Tyler seconded the motion. After a discussion in which other members said they would be more comfortable voting on the policy closer to that date, Markey withdrew the motion, while Tyler withdrew his support.
The Hopkinton Teachers Association submitted a letter to the committee (as well as the independent) criticizing the actions of the two members.
“Mr. Markey and Ms. Tyler have chosen to operate independently of the committee they sit on,” HTA President Becky Abate charged on behalf of the union’s board.
Nancy Cavanaugh read the letter during the public comment period, but omitted the names of the two school committee members.
“[Markey], and Ms. Tyler, acted in the shadow of private Facebook groups to advance their position on a topic already so controversial for this city,” Abate continued. “In doing so, they have created a very public divide between themselves and their colleagues. Mr Markey has frequently praised the school committee for staying “unified” despite their differing opinions. It is disheartening to see unification weakened at a time when it is so critical.
In a statement Friday, Markey defended himself, noting his history of civic engagement and consensus building on complex issues in Hopkinton dating back 18 years.
“As an elected volunteer, I am very aware of the rights, limits and duties I have in communicating with people,” he said. “By engaging and connecting with the community, committee members can facilitate civic engagement and increase committee awareness of the full range of community feelings on important issues.”
Early in the discussion of the issue, Nancy Cavanaugh said it was “a bit of a tricky process for all of us” and the first such complaint to come up during her tenure on the board. of the committee.
She called it “an opportunity to restore public trust” by encouraging transparency in the process. There is a legally mandated process that must be followed, including investigation and reporting of findings.
When the president asked if the issue should be discussed in public or executive session, Tyler was the first to say it should be discussed openly. Markey agreed.
After the date of filing, the committee has 14 working days to respond to the complainant and the Attorney General. The deadline for this response is February 18, the day after the next school committee meeting.
An investigation into the allegations must be undertaken by law. Once the investigation is complete, a corrective response will be drafted. The draft response should be reviewed by the committee before submission to the GA office.
“Given that there are only two people at the meeting – I assume you read the script accurately – regardless of the merits of the claim, is an investigation necessary?” Markey asked. “Or in some cases, do we look at the facts and determine that two is not a quorum.”
“My instinct as a school committee colleague would be, ‘Of course, no one would do that,'” the president said, noting that there should be some indication of a ‘serial conversation,’ for example by email. “But I also think it could be beneficial for you and for all of us to have a transparent way to be able to say definitively that we looked at all the facts” to determine that there was no serial communication.
Markey said as soon as he was made aware of the complaint, he took information to Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh’s office.
“I would say absolutely let the public process unfold,” he said. “As elected volunteers, we all know very well our rights, our limits and our duties in communicating with people.
He noted that he had been a volunteer in the community for 18 years, citing his work on the Hopkinton Master Plan as an example of his service. “But with this experience, I also learned to maintain my humility, my confidence and my respect for the public process and for other volunteers.”
Markey also said he wanted to “help defuse the situation for the public” because citizens have a right to complain while the committee has an obligation to respond.
Tyler said she was happy to delegate responsibility for an investigation to the superintendent. Superintendent Cavanaugh asked Human Resources Manager Kimberly Pulnik to help with the matter.
The chair said she met with one of the committee’s lawyers to see how to proceed.
“I wanted to make sure the process was fair and transparent and gain public trust,” she said. “I think it hurts us if people can’t see what we’re doing and wonder what happened.”
She added that she had seen a screenshot of what had been posted about it on social media but could not confirm the source.
“It’s all there,” Markey said of the information he provided. “He’s been there since Monday or Tuesday.”
Once the investigation is completed, an attorney will review it to ensure proper procedures were followed before the school board discusses the superintendent’s findings at the February 17 meeting.
“It sounds like a plan,” Tyler said.