Superintendent Sues School Board
By: Alex Scofield
The Sandwich School Committee chose a professional consultant on Wednesday night to help find a new superintendent of schools, two days after the current superintendent filed suit against the committee.
Sandwich Schools Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson is suing the Sandwich School Committee along with four of its members—Sharron L. Marshall, Jessica A. Linehan, Marie A. Kangas and Nancy A. Crossman—personally and is seeking $300,000, plus damages, in a complaint alleging breach of contract and malicious interference. Dr. Johnson’s attorney, Paul Nevins of Boston, filed the suit at Barnstable Superior Court on Monday.
“It was reluctantly on her part, but we’ve got to find a way to move beyond the status quo,” Mr. Nevins said.
The status quo to which Mr. Nevins referred is a dispute over the validity of a contract Dr. Johnson signed in April that extended her tenure as superintendent through 2013. In a September 10 letter to Sandwich schools counsel Joseph A. Emerson Jr. of Westwood, Mr. Nevins asked that the school committee honor this contract by October 10, or Dr. Johnson would file suit.
“Now that it’s in the hands of the courts, I am looking forward to a speedy resolution,” said Ms. Marshall, chairman of the committee.
Ms. Marshall would not comment further on the lawsuit, but said last week that the committee responded in writing to Mr. Nevins’s September letter, following a private discussion of Dr. Johnson’s contract with Mr. Emerson on September 30.
The committee’s response, Mr. Nevins said, was not satisfactory. “The school committee was not inclined to move beyond their position. …They stonewalled it,” Mr. Nevins said.
The committee’s position since September has been to move forward on a search for Dr. Johnson’s successor. The members unanimously voted in September to seek a professional consultant to assist with the search. However, the unanimous scenario changed a bit during the committee’s meeting Wednesday night, when committee member Andrea M. Killion moved to postpone the search for a superintendent until Dr. Johnson’s lawsuit is resolved. Member Barbara A. Susko seconded the motion, but they were the only members who supported it; the motion was defeated 5-2.
“I think we have to proceed, because as everything stands right now, her contract ends on June 30,” Ms. Marshall said after Wednesday’s meeting.
By a 5-1 vote, the committee chose the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MEAC) to serve as a consultant for its superintendent search. Ms. Killion cast the dissenting vote, while Ms. Susko, who was not at the committee meeting in which the consulting candidates appeared, abstained from voting.
Dr. Johnson’s complaint seeks the equivalent of a mandamus, Mr. Nevins said. The suit asks the court to order the school committee to honor Dr. Johnson’s contract extension through 2013. Should this be granted, Mr. Nevins said, their mission is accomplished.
“It would short-circuit the whole process of litigation,” Mr. Nevins said.
However, Dr. Johnson’s lawsuit also claims breach of the contract she signed in April, and seeks $300,000 in contract claims.
Dr. Johnson signed the April contract immediately following a 4-2 decision by the committee to extend her tenure as superintendent through 2013. However, Thomas G. Shack III, the assistant district attorney of the Cape and Islands district, said in a May letter that the meeting at which the committee approved Dr. Johnson’s extension was held in violation of open meeting law. The committee held another vote on extending Dr. Johnson’s contract in June, this time with two new members, and voted 4-3 not to renew the contract, which expired at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.
Mr. Nevins maintains that the April contract remains valid, because any technical violations of open meeting law posed by the meeting in question were too trivial to be legally significant. Mr. Nevins also said in his September letter that the school committee missed a 20-day window of opportunity to file a legal claim against the validity of the meeting.
The lawsuit claims that Ms. Marshall, Ms. Linehan, Ms. Kangas, and Ms. Crossman, the current members who opposed Dr. Johnson’s extension, “have, arbitrarily and capriciously, mistreated [Dr. Johnson]” and “have intentionally interfered with [Dr. Johnson’s] ability to discharge her responsibilities as superintendent of schools.”
Regarding the claim of malicious interference, Mr. Nevins referred to the school committee’s four members who voted against extending Dr. Johnson’s contract in June. In his September letter, Mr. Nevins referred to a “charged atmosphere” surrounding the issue of Dr. Johnson’s contract. In a phone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Nevins said that in his opinion, “they look at the superintendent as somebody who is not at their beck and call.”
When asked about the possibility of an out-of-court settlement, Mr. Nevins said he and Dr. Johnson remain open to “reasonable alternatives,” but none were provided by the committee’s majority at this time.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation, and it should have been resolved,” Mr. Nevins said.
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