Superintendent remains on paid leave as her attorney accuses the School Committee of violating the state Open Meeting Law during executive session last month
By Mark E. Vogler
Saugus Public Schools Superintendent Erin McMahon’s lawyer wrote a letter to the School Committee attorney last month advising him that she planned to return to work on June 5 after being out for more than four months on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into alleged misconduct. But the attorney representing the School Committee responded in a letter warning the superintendent to stay away from the workplace or risk possible action by the committee for being “insubordinate.”
The two dueling letters were exhibits in an Open Meeting Law complaint that McMahon’s Attorney, Michael J. Long, filed against the School Committee alleging members took an improper vote during a May 30 closed door Executive Session. The agenda posted for the meeting cited “Potential Litigation and arbitration strategy” related to the superintendent. “In fact the Committee took a vote to place Erin McMahon on paid leave, thereby preventing her from returning to work on June 5, 2023, based on the four allegations originally lodged in January,” Long wrote in his complaint letter, which was recently filed with Town Clerk Ellen Schena.
“This vote violates the Open Meeting Law as it was taken without notice to the Superintendent that the Committee would take action against her based on the complaints or allegations raised in January, contrary to her rights under [Mass. General Laws],” the complaint continued. “The Committee’s posted notice and stated meeting purpose was a sham and subterfuge to prevent Erin McMahon and counsel from attending and defending against the allegations. The illegal meeting was deliberately designed to provide an improper opportunity to discuss the charges against Erin McMahon, as evidenced by the terms of the Committee’s notice, in [Exhibit 3], to her of the vote at the May 30, 2023 meeting.”
Long has requested in his complaint that the Committee’s vote to place McMahon on paid administrative leave be invalidated and that she be permitted to return to work.
Complaint summarizes allegations against McMahon
Very little has been made public since the School Committee announced on Jan. 19 that McMahon had agreed to go on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into unspecified charges. But the May 31 letter by Howard L. Greenspan, the Lynnfield attorney representing the School Committee, noted that “Ms. McMahon was informed on January 19, 2023 at a School Committee meeting that an investigation would be conducted relative to her administration of grant funds, conflict of interest, billing issues with outside consultants and the time of days in the district and out of district.”
This information was never discussed publicly at the Jan. 19 meeting when School Committee Chair Vincent Serino read a brief statement noting that the committee “has accepted Superintendent Erin McMahon’s agreed upon paid administrative leave” after consultation with legal counsel.
Greenspan’s May 31 letter also noted “that the School Committee voted to place Erin McMahon on paid administrative leave pending the conclusion of an investigation into her conduct.”
In his Open Meeting Law Complaint, Long alleged that the May 30 meeting “was called in response to a letter from counsel for Superintendent McMahon (see attached Ex. 2) advising the Committee that the Superintendent was going to return to work on June 5, 2023 as she had not been provided with any information about the complaints or charges brought to her attention on Jan. 19, 2023.”
Long wrote that McMahon’s paid leave status was based on “vague complaints about her performance.” “The Committee has maintained it was conducting an independent investigation of the complaints, but has not provided to the Superintendent any updates or detail to specifics, as required by her contract of employment,” Long wrote. “McMahon has cooperated fully with the investigation assigned by the Town (not the Committee) to investigate the concerns. There is no evidence of a vote of the Committee delegating to the Town or the Town Manager the authority to conduct an investigation into the Superintendent’s performance of her duties.”
When The Saugus Advocate approached Serino about the Open Meeting Law complaint on Wednesday, the School Committee chair declined comment.
The School Committee was scheduled to meet in Executive Session at last night’s meeting to discuss the Open Meeting Law complaint.
Under the state Open Meeting Law, the School Committee has 14 business days from the date of receipt to meet to review the complainant’s allegations, take remedial action if appropriate, notify the complainant of the remedial action and forward a copy of the complaint and description of the remedial action taken to the complainant. The committee must simultaneously notify the state Attorney General’s Division of Open Government that it has responded to the complainant and provide the Attorney General with a copy of the response and a description of any remedial action taken.
“Superintendent was coerced to agree”
Another Exhibit in the complaint file at the Town Clerk’s Office is a May 24 letter that Long wrote to Greenspan advising of McMahon’s notice of intent to return to work. “It is more than four months since the meetings of Jan. 19, 2023 when the Committee clearly told the Superintendent that if she did not agree to an administrative leave, they would vote to impose that status,” Long wrote.
“That unmistakable message was confirmed in your correspondence of March 3, 2023. Faced in January with vague and unspecified concerns, and no choice but to attempt to preserve her reputation the Superintendent was coerced to agree,” he said.
In his May 24 letter to Greenspan, Long made a reference to Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree. “He is not party to the Superintendent’s contract and he exercises no legal authority over the office of the Superintendent, her working conditions, or her contract terms,” Long wrote. “To my knowledge, no vote of the Committee was taken delegating to the Town Administrator the authority to conduct such an investigation on the Committee’s behalf.”
Yet, the complaint alleged that the probe of the superintendent’s alleged misconduct was being conducted by an investigator “assigned by the town” – and “not the School Committee.” On April 6, about two and a half months after the School Committee indicated it was initiating an investigation, the superintendent finally met with an attorney involved in the investigation and provided her hundreds of pages of documents at the investigator’s request, according to Long. The superintendent has not been told whether the investigator has reported findings or recommendations to either the School Committee or the town manager, Long said.
Long complained that the School Committee has not been forthcoming with any specific information relating to the superintendent’s alleged misconduct. “Despite repeated requests, no specific allegations or information about these areas of concern have been provided to Superintendent McMahon,” Long wrote.
“Multiple appeals to the Supervisor of Public Records have been stonewalled, despite SPR orders to your client to produce public records,” he said.
Late last month, the superintendent sought to withdraw her voluntary paid leave and return to work. “Under the circumstances, I am writing to advise the Committee that Superintendent McMahon is no longer willing to continue to remain absent from her work on what you have called a voluntary leave,” Long advised Greenspan. “She will report to work Monday, June 5….Superintendent McMahon looks forward to resuming her work with the Committee and service to the children and staff of the district.”
But a week later, Greenspan advised Long that the School Committee voted to place the superintendent on leave, pending the conclusion of the investigation into her alleged misconduct. “While on administrative leave please advise Ms. McMahon not to come to the workplace, perform any work or contact School Committee members or other persons involved in the pending issues unless she is instructed or approved to do so in advance by the Chair of the Committee,” Greenspan wrote.
“Failure to meet these requirements could be considered insubordination and result in action by the School Committee,” he warned.
In June of 2021, the School Committee approved a five-year contract for McMahon, with a starting salary of $196,000. The superintendent stands to earn close to a million dollars over the life of the contract. It marked the first time in the history of Saugus Public Schools that the School Committee had approved a five-year contract for the leader of the town’s public education system. It was also the first time that the School Committee had hired a woman superintendent.
McMahon is two weeks away from completing the second year of a five-year plan to move the school district from the bottom 10 percent of academic performing schools to the top 10 percent, based on the district’s ranking against the state in performance on Math and Reading scores in the MCAS Exam.