The School Committee on Tuesday night opted not to fill the seat vacated by former Vice Chair Emily Barron, who formally stepped down from her position last week after an apparent conflict of interest came to light.
The committee was split evenly over whether or not to fill Barron’s seat — with Chair Sarah Fox and member Alison Taylor opposing the move and members Sarah Gold and Meagan Taylor voting to support filling the seat. The crux of the dispute was whether or not the decision should be made by voters, with the seat set to appear on the ballot before voters at the town’s annual election in June.
Barron, a residential designer, said her resignation came after she appeared in August before the Zoning Board of Appeals on behalf of a client. She subsequently learned that her professional work created a potential conflict of interest with her School Committee service.
Barron said she immediately reached out to the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, at which point she learned that the only way for her to continue to serve on the committee was for the ethics laws regarding School Committee members to be changed.
Barron said she consulted with the Ethics Commission and the town to craft and identify a possible solution involving redesignating School Committee members as special employees rather than regular employees. Special employees are allowed to appear before other boards and committees in town in a professional capacity, she said, while regular employees are not.
Barron said she took that proposal to the Select Board, and, she said, the board declined to change the designation because of members’ belief that doing so would represent a conflict of interest on their part. Select Board member Jackie Belf- Becker said the board did not discuss Barron’s proposal.
“It did not make it to the table,” Belf-Becker said.
Barron said she was then left with no choice but to resign from the School Committee, a decision she dubbed “incredibly disappointing,” in part because, she said, another member of the committee knew of the conflict for the entirety of her term but failed to alert her. Barron, when asked, declined to identify the member.
“It was devastating that I had to resign because I do a tremendous amount on the board,” she said.
But, Barron said, she is uncertain if she would run again if cleared of any conflicts.
“It’s a pretty toxic environment so I’m not sure I would want to be in that environment,” she said.
In a letter of resignation submitted to Town Clerk Robin Michaud, Barron wrote that she was “hopeful that the remaining committee members can find a way to work with one another and our administrators in a positive, supportive manner to address the challenges facing our district.”
Gold began the meeting by commending Barron, praising her former colleague for conducting herself in “highly gracious ways, and an upstanding manner.”
“She will leave big shoes to fill here. She truly cares about students in this district and elsewhere and that showed in her work on the School Committee. She always has worked to build relationships that would benefit the district and move it forward,” Gold said. “I just want to thank her for the work that she put in and the time that she spent over the past few years, none of which have been easy. She will be very missed.”
When the committee came to addressing the vacancy, Fox laid out the procedure for appointing a member to fill Barron’s seat, which would first require the committee to decide it did want to fill the seat. Had the committee chosen to do so, members would have coordinated with the Select Board to hold a joint meeting at which point they would ask for letters of interest, which would then be reviewed before public interviews were held and a vote was taken to appoint a new member.
But, Fox said, she believed the committee should not move forward in filling the vacancy, noting that they still met the standard for quorum with four members.
“At this point, my recommendation is to let the voters decide who fills that seat and to go on as a fourperson committee,” Fox said.
Gold countered that the committee “clearly [has] some differing perspectives” and she worried that many important issues that come before members could wind up in a split vote without a fifth member.
“It could really hamper moving forward on things,” she said.
Meagan Taylor backed Gold, saying she believed the vacancy should be filled as a way to help distribute some of the responsibilities Barron held, like the vice chair position, and as a member of the policy subcommittee.
“That leaves a big gap in terms of the work we need to do and we need that fifth person to help us with that work. Also because we’re talking about a potential budget ask again, I do think that fifth perspective will be helpful in both those conversations amongst ourselves and with the community,” she said. “I just think there’s a lot going on and we need that fifth person.”
Alison Taylor sided with Fox, saying she felt the decision should be left up to the public.
“I certainly understand the gap and the hole that Emily leaves . . . I though would err on the side of not filling it,” she said.
“That’s really where I come from on this where particularly it’s potentially a dynamic year budget-wise.I feel that unless the public is voting on that we should not be voting on anybody holding that seat. I do feel a public vote on that would be important,” added Fox.
Gold noted that Barron’s term was set to expire ahead of next year’s election regardless of the vacancy, and expressed that between the members of the committee and the Select Board, any potential candidates would be thoroughly vetted.
Meagan Taylor added that she felt it was the committee’s responsibility to act, having been elected to reflect the “best interests of the district.”
“The voters have also elected the four of us to use our leadership role to make the decisions in the best interest of the district. That’s our job and I think we should fill the spot and make sure that we’ve got a full committee who’s all working towards the goals that we’ve set forward,” she said.
A split vote killed the prospect of filling the vacancy, and Gold then motioned to appoint Meagan Taylor, who had previously served as vice chair, to fill the vice chair position left behind by Barron.That motion similarly faced opposition from Alison Taylor and Fox and did not pass.