By Sarah Champagne, Managing Editor
SOUTHBRIDGE – Dr. Jeffrey Villar, receiver of Southbridge schools, sits at a meeting table in his office with pages of data from several reports and surveys on the troubled district. The data is uneven at best. It shows occasional strengths or improvements in some aspects of culture at some of the district schools while other data sets paint a grim, but not at all surprising, picture of the long-troubled system.
Villar provided the reports for discussion, in part to respond to claims that he is not transparent with the School Committee, parents and other community stakeholders. He says that claims that his administration lacks transparency are boldly provocative but completely unfounded.
The claim that Villar is not transparent in his leadership was made by School Committee Chairwoman Jacquelyn Ryan at a public meeting Tuesday, Dec. 11, which was broadcast on local cable access and is now available for viewing on Southbridge Community Television’s YouTube channel.
Scheduling the meeting was, in itself, subject to arguments about who has the right to call or cancel a school committee meeting and what constitutes a legal or official meeting. The School Committee normally meets once per month on a Tuesday evening.
Monday, Nov. 26, Villar notified school committee members that he was canceling the December meeting. Villar reports that committee chairwoman Ryan “reluctantly agreed” at that time to the cancellation.
However, by Thursday, Dec. 6, Ryan sent an email to Villar and all members of the School Committee which stated, “I received a request for meeting petition that was signed by three members of the Southbridge School Committee for the 11th of December at 7 p.m. As required of me, I have posted the meeting at the town clerk’s office and reserved council chambers. Attached are the petition and agenda.”
Villar’s response by email to Ryan that same day indicated that such a meeting, presented to the public as a school committee meeting, would be fraudulent. His reply was as follows:
“I appreciate the notification, however, I am disappointed because we agreed to cancel the meeting. Regardless, I must remind you that ALL of the power of the school committee rests with the district receiver. I strongly caution you against representing the proposed meeting as an official Southbridge School Committee meeting. Such an action is disingenuous and potentially fraudulent,” Villar wrote in the email to Ryan.
He continued: “In my absence, there can be no substantive discussion about the Southbridge Public Schools and no meaningful action can be taken. Please do not mislead the community. There are a great many of issues that must be addressed to successfully turnaround our schools. There is no time for political grandstanding and other types of distractions. I hope that you reconsider and resume a spirit of collaboration”
The meeting was held as filed with the office of the Town Clerk Tuesday, Dec. 11. Much of the meeting focused on the issue of bullying in the schools and concerns that parents expressed during the “Citizen Input” portion of the meeting. The Citizen Chronicle covered the meeting, including parent concerns expressed at the podium. Click here to read that coverage.
During the chairwoman’s announcements, Ryan expressed frustration with the receiver and alleged that he has not been transparent or collaborative in his approach to leading the district as she addressed families and community members in attendance.
“Whatever frustrations you have, please let us know. We need to be in the know. Because unfortunately, the administration has not been too transparent. I have worked diligently. I have met with him, Dr. Villar, monthly, to discuss issues within the school district and I am not at all pleased with the lack of transparency from the school department,” Ryan said.
Villar, for his part, sees receivership as a solution for school districts that is meant to transcend the political maneuvering that is possible in any elected body. He says that Ryan’s rescheduling of the previously canceled meeting and the provocative statements she made at the meeting “just underscore the need for receivership.”
Villar says that Ryan should not have represented the meeting that occurred as official school committee business and expressed concern that people viewing the meeting on Southbridge Cable Access’ YouTube channel “will be misled into thinking it was an official meeting of the school committee.”
Ryan says that in response to Villar’s email of Dec. 6, she contacted the Attorney General’s office to request an opinion on the matter. Ryan says that the Office of the Attorney General declined to give an official opinion on the matter but that they indicated that precedent would be a guiding principle and that the town’s legal counsel might provide clarification.
Ryan says that she then contacted Ron San Angelo, Southbridge Town Manager, to seek counsel but that San Angelo responded that he didn’t believe that counsel would intervene in a school matter.
“Absent of that independent opinion, I feel the precedence is that we as a board have continued to vote to accept and post meeting dates while under receivership and as such control the ability to call a meeting,” Ryan wrote in an email to school committee members, San Angelo and Villar.
Villar disagrees with that assessment, saying that the school committee has so far been “allowed to schedule meetings at the discretion of the receiver.”
“So, the meeting posted for tomorrow will go forward unless I receive an independent legal opinion stating otherwise. The meeting will be just a discussion and no consequential actions will take place,” Ryan concluded in the email.
Villar says he recognizes that the Southbridge school district is “a system where everyone is tired. So, I am trying to stop the blame game.” He also asserts that in a system where teachers, students and other stakeholders have come to expect rapid changes in expectations, turnover and even a feeling of abandonment, he is committed to long-term service in the district.
“I am here to stay. If they think they are getting rid of the receiver, well, that’s not going to happen,” Villar says. “I am not going anywhere. We are going to stay the course. I took this job for 2,000 plus students. I didn’t take the job to appease adults,” Villar asserts.
The school committee currently consists of seven members. A quorum of that body consists of half plus one. In the case of seven members that quorum is four members. The meeting of Dec. 11 had four members present: Tanya Duval, Amelia Peloquin, Jacquelyn Ryan, and Martena Shea.
The next school committee meeting is currently scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 7 p.m. in council chambers of Southbridge Town Hall. School Committee meetings are regularly broadcast on Southbridge Community Cable’s television station and made available shortly thereafter on the group’s YouTube page.