The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s (MVRHS) decided against releasing a letter from their legal representatives on the committee’s earlier decision to accept anonymous donations.
During the MVRHS School Committee meeting on Monday, Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent Richie Smith shared what he learned about the acceptance and use of anonymous donations for legal expenses from legal counsel Murphy, Lamere, and Murphy.
Smith said the legal opinion from the law firm was “consistent with what we have spoken about in our school committees.”
“Essentially, Massachusetts law allows for the use of anonymous donations for the payment of legal fees and any other lawful expenditure,” Smith said.
Anonymous donations were raised as an issue because of the contentious MVRHS athletics field project and an ongoing lawsuit. The Oak Bluffs planning board denied a special permit for the field out of PFAS concerns, and the school committee appealed. Short on funds, they used private donations to fund the lawsuit. When facing questions from the public, the committee voted to pursue a written legal opinion about the acceptance and use of anonymous donations during a meeting early last month.
The committee debated whether to release the letter to the public, which they eventually decided against in a 5-3 vote.
There was some disagreement among committee members on the legal opinion.
Committee member Robert Lionette said the opinion did not acknowledge “anonymous gifts” or an “anonymous function,” adding that his read of the opinion was that the donor had to be identified, and that there was a criterion for this in the letter.
“That’s not anonymous,” Lionette said. “Anonymous to the public, but not anonymous in process.”
Additionally, Lionette said, the firm’s opinion seemed to require that the committee develop a policy about accepting anonymous donations. Lionette said it would be in the committee’s “best interest” to understand the anonymous donations process for the project, which has a “hefty, multimillion-dollar price tag.”
Lionette also pointed out that Murphy, Lamere, and Murphy had been “inherently risk-averse” when advising the school committee, and felt a representative should come in to explain their reasoning.
Committee chair Kathryn Shertzer said since the letter was not released to the public, she felt further clarifications about the letter should be referred to counsel.
Committee member Skipper Manter moved to release the letter to the public, since this was a matter of interest to many Vineyarders.
Meanwhile, committee member Michael Watts pointed out that while it was within the committee’s rights to share the legal opinion, there could be “implications” if it were done.
“It’s also the public’s right to know,” Manter said.
“The public can read the exact same Mass General Laws,” Watts replied.
Watts continued that he had a different read on the letter than “what was presented here,” although he did not expand upon this. Watts also asked why the committee was seeking legal counsel if it was not going to listen to the advice given.
Additionally, Watts said it did not matter if the opinion was released, because people “read words differently.” He said it won’t change peoples’ opinions.
“Despite what we’ve said, the criticism in public is extremely strong, saying we’re acting illegally, we’re taking drug money, we’re criminals,” he said.
Shertzer said she also reached out to the law firm to ask what it means to release legal opinions meant for the school committee and the potential implications, which she said she shared with the other committee members. “I don’t know how anyone on Earth could feel comfortable possibly releasing this,” Shertzer said, although she did not share what these implications were.
Smith acknowledged that there is strong public criticism, but said it would benefit the people who believe in the school committee if the legal opinion were released. “When we start talking about this track and field project, I know every single one of you is here for kids,” he said. “There’s a project that needs to happen.”
Manter’s motion was shot down.
Some committee members discussed the possibility of bringing in legal counsel in an executive session to discuss the letter.
Shertzer pointed out that the school committee has gone against the wishes of some towns not to spend more legal funds on the field project by asking for the legal opinion. “And here we are doing it again,” she said.
Lionette emphasized that the committee will need to think about how it accepts anonymous donations to avoid potential future legal issues. Shertzer said the committee accepts private anonymous donations “all the time.” Committee member Louis Paciello said if the attorney were being brought in to discuss anonymous donations, it would need to cover all anonymous donations, not just ones that pertain to the field project.
After further discussion, the committee unanimously voted to submit legal questions to Shertzer, who would in turn send them to the attorney.
Meanwhile, the status conference for the field litigation appeal was set for Nov. 17 at 9 am, per the request of Oak Bluffs, on Zoom.