The MVRHS School Committee voted to spend more money on legal fees pertaining to the high school athletic field project, this time to engage the school’s attorneys for a written statement regarding the legality of accepting and using anonymous donations.
A motion from committee member Kris O’Brien to get the legal opinion in writing and to take the money from the FY24 legal line passed 7-1. Committee member Skip Manter was the sole nay vote.
The legal opinion is an attempt to increase transparency in the committee’s decision to accept money from an anonymous source, but the committee had previously agreed not to spend money from the school’s FY24 legal budget on the controversial lawsuit.
During a meeting Monday, Superintendent Richard Smith had emphatically urged the committee to obtain the written statement, and to consider publicly releasing it, for purposes of transparency.
“This committee has done nothing wrong, from a legal standpoint,” said Smith. “It just so happens that according to our attorneys, accepting and using the anonymous donations is appropriate. Maybe folks don’t like that, but I feel that as a school system, we need to stand behind that.”
“This is about supporting our school system and making sure people know that what we’re doing is appropriate,” the superintendent said.
Committee member Robert Lionette directed the conversation to the topic, following up on a prior request to receive a legal opinion on accepting anonymous donations from the school’s legal counsel, in writing.
Smith and committee chair Kathryn Schertzer consulted with their lawyer after July 1, when the FY24 calendar began, without consulting or asking the rest of the committee prior. Smith says as committee chair and superintendent, they have the right to do that.
“I’d like to revisit the recommendation provided to this committee via the superintendent concerning the donations. I’d like to request that it be submitted to all members in writing,” Lionette said. “Not that I disrespect your ears, or her ears,” he said of Smith and Schertzer, “I just think it’s important that members have the opportunity to read it directly.”
Schertzer agreed to get it done, but reminded the committee that to do so would mean incurring more legal fees to engage their attorney’s time to write the statement.
Despite the voting results, Tisbury representative Michael Watts and other committee members felt strongly that the funds to pay for the legal services should not come from the FY24 budget. “My town said, ‘You can’t spend any more money on this,’” stated Watts.
“I feel a strong responsibility to those towns to not incur more fees for this matter,” O’Brien said of the turf field litigation.
Because the written statement is needed to make decisions on financing continuing legal fees, O’Brien said she felt it should not be considered part of the litigation, and approved of the use of FY24 funds in this case.
O’Brien made the formal motion to take the money from the legal line in the FY24 budget; she apologized to the towns, but defended her decision, saying it was an “operational issue” and “a practice of the district.”
“Having our attorney, who we trust and who we listen to, who advises us, write a legal opinion, and have this group stand by that legal opinion, is the right thing to do,” said Smith.
The superintendent acknowledged the 20-year working relationship between the school and its legal counsel, Murphy, Lamere, and Murphy, in light of questions raised surrounding the ethics of the advice.
“They don’t tell us what will work for us, they tell us and advise us of what is legal,” said Smith.
“This is a matter of our entire Island having a narrative out there that continues to grow that we’re not doing the right thing,” said Smith. “We need to have that legal opinion.”
The vote happened after an update on the committee’s appeal against the Oak Bluffs planning board; the board had rejected the school’s proposal to build a turf field, but the committee won an appeal of the decision in Land Court. Watts shared that the committee will be presenting a status report via Brian Winner on Thursday, following Judge Kevin T. Smith’s Sept. 5 ruling. Per Smith’s decision, officials with the planning board and school committee were “ordered” to collaborate on a written joint status report, to be submitted to the court within 30 days of the decision. A tentative meeting was set for Wednesday night. Winner will be on call to discuss the report before its release on Thursday.
“He is available for us to have a discussion, should we need to have a discussion,” said Schertzer.