School committee dipping into budget for legal question

The MVRHS committee at a recent meeting —MV Times

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.


  1. Let’s direct money away from the actual students and use them for legal fees. What a shame. Resolve this already.

  2. Instead of criticizing this school committee, I would like to thank them for standing against an abuse of authority by a rogue planning board. Not a nickel of these considerable legal fees would have been incurred by either side if the OB Planning Board had not chosen to disregard the advice of their own counsel. That board was advised by counsel (in writing, not that that mattered) that a decision to deny the special permit was beyond its authority, and that it would likely be overturned by a reviewing court – which is exactly what happened. If it were not for the unlawful actions of the OB Planning Board, there would never have been a need to file an appeal – and we, the people, get to foot the bill for the legal expenses on both sides. Expenses that continue to mount after the courts ruling. Let’s place the blame where it belongs. At some point, OB town government is going to have to be held accountable for its missteps.

    • Mr. Davis,
      There are no sides to the pollution incurred by the direct use of unnecessarily plastics, including this outdated synthetic turf . There are no side in water protection . There are no sides to climate change as we experience records breaking heat . As the world commits to phasing out fossil fuels the majority school committee members want a plastic turf which is made from fossil fuels. Maybe you’ve noticed the local bans on unnecessary plastic items that end up mostly unrecycled and end up as micro plastic in our oceans, our blood and our water? Tackeling the solutions feels over whelming, but we can take actions everyday to make a difference. Our schools should be examples of best practices intellectually and empathically for our Island and our world. Our elected and appointed leaders have every right to protect us and our natural resources. Every aspect of our island community that contributes to run off that can negatively affect our aquifer has to commit to a ‘ DO NO HARM’ pledge including the marine , construction, extracurricular adult and youth athletics and our public’s schools, this is why we pay leaders at the MVC and Boards of health. Folks will say,” but water and fertilizer!” And I agree- we can simply no longer have things like over fertilized lawns that are sources of toxic chemicals. There has been a lot of innovation in growing eco lawns and our high school should 100% commit to that. As our local government climate policy take shape , MVRHS has taken no stand on their carbon foot print or statement to preserve our natural resources . This school is regional, all taxpayers contribute and have a voice in what they do . The blame you speak of will be on the MVC and the Island Boards of health if they allow 2+ acres of plastic to sit on our sole source aquifer or any where else on MV. They are so many people against this product , including professional athletes. It has disrupted local funding and taken focus away from academic progress. We need leaders to run who fully support and understand the environmental crisis we live in today, with solid solutions and meaningful votes to preserve the future for our children and generations to come. The dark cloud around this project is reason enough to mediate and come together with a plan that we can all be proud of.

      • You would be out of business if you followed your advice here. What is the carbon footprint of all the materials you sell. Are they 100% non synthetic? You would not have PVC piping to your septic. No tires on your cars. No coating on the wires in your house. Hoping you don’t wear anything synthetic. You suggest mediate. Mediation requires parties that are willing to speak. Have you noticed that nobody (planning board chair) took the schools offer to their committee. That is the definition of an autocracy. Let’s see. Town attorney told him no jurisdiction and now a judge. Again. Close down your business then let’s talk.

      • Nobody up in chilmark is asking for the Abel’s hill tennis courts to be removed. The great watchdogs like their courts and the people who play on them. No outcry. No uproar.

        It is a do as I say, not as I do world.

        Same town boards that oppose turf are seeking a PFAs concentrating solid food waste facility over the aquifer.
        Again. If you are going to make a stand actually do it across the board.

      • I’m not sure why you addressed your screed to me, as it has nothing to do with my comment or the points raised therein. If you are suggesting that you think it’s just fine for an elected official to disregard the advice of counsel, and knowingly and willfully embark on an unlawful course of action so long as it aligns with your own fear-based environmental philosophy – then I very much disagree with you. So does the court. Now that we know that there was no legal basis for the actions taken by the OB Planning Board, residents of the other five towns with sincere concerns about the school committee legal expenses should be pressuring their elected officials to urge the school committee to file a motion for recovery of legal expenses from the town of Oak Bluffs.

  3. Thank you Bert, your insight to the TRUTH of what has happened is welcoming. Let’s just hope another town of Oak Bluffs Board doesn’t try to overstep its authority and do something illegal or unethical.

    In addition, I find two things hypocritical. 1. The individual on the School Board who started this “Defund the School” over the use of more legal bills, and has spoken out against the taking of anonymous donations, requested that those exact funds be used to pay for the legal bill to ask the school lawyer to write a response to something that has already been received and recorded publicly. 2. That the other School Board representative who has openly opposed this project from day one, and the use of more money to pay legal bills, wants to incur another legal bill to get something in writing in which the superintendent and the chair of the board have already reported on. BTW, his town, upon his suggestion, voted to defund the school over legal bills.

    The superintendent is correct, if you want this in writing, then this is a policy issue and should be used with 2024 legal budget line. Yes, it was brought to light over the field issue but it isn’t a field issue alone.

    Please OB Selectboard, do the right thing and approve this project. It is time to build before more money is wasted.

  4. From Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:
    Appropriate – especially suitable or compatible
    Legal – conforming to or permitted by law or established rules
    I think it’s important to note that these two words are not the same. If it is decided that accepting annonymous cash donations for a controversial public project is legal, that in no way suggests it is appropriate.

  5. Superintendent Smith…look back over history. That which is legal isn’t necessarily ethical.

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