By Mark E. Vogler
SAUGUS – Erin McMahon, the first woman superintendent in the history of Saugus Public Schools, said she believes that the allegations that eventually led to her firing were motivated by gender discrimination. “I hired a male assistant because the men would not talk to me,” McMahon said in an April 6 interview that was part of the investigation.
“And the town manager wouldn’t even look at me. He would talk over me,” she said.
In an effort to support her argument about being the subject of gender discrimination, McMahon noted in her interview in conjunction with the investigation that “four superintendents who were all male were turned over in the last decade, None of them, to my knowledge, was investigated.” But the lengthy report that details the specific reasons for McMahon’s termination identifies the source of the initial complaints as a high-level woman administrator – Deputy Superintendent Margaret Ferrick – whom McMahon had hired to be her number two person.
And former School Committee Member Leigh Gerow, who made the motion to fire the superintendent, took great umbrage to McMahon’s conclusion. “As a committee, we referenced the Executive Summary Report and Ms. McMahon’s remarks to make an informed decision. I stand by the motion made and decision to terminate,” Gerow told The Saugus Advocate this week.
“As a woman and a mom, I resent the insinuation that this termination took place due to Ms. McMahon’s gender. The factors that led to my choice were not about that at all. But rather, the overwhelming evidence that pointed to her wrongdoing,” Gerow said.
The allegations of wrongdoing against McMahon focused on potential conflicts of interest involving the superintendent’s working relationship with a consultant, fraudulent activity in the payment of invoices to a certain professional development provider for the School District, inappropriately used grant funds and questions about the significant amount of time she was spending out of the School District. There were creditable concerns raised that McMahon allegedly engaged in unethical, if not illegal, misconduct in the course of carrying out her official duties.
“As a minimum, Superintendent McMahon’s acceptance of consulting fees and gratis professional development training from a professional development provider that the District subsequently contracted with in the amount of $56,000 gives rise to the appearance that Superintendent McMahon was improperly influenced to do business with Relay [Graduate School of Education] as a result of her own financial interest,” the report determined.
The report also took issue with McMahon’s failure to disclose her consulting arrangement to the School Committee for more than a year. The superintendent’s contracting with Relay after her receipt of money from Relay also appeared to be a violation of the Saugus Town Charter. Also of great concern to investigators of the law firm Arrowood LLP were McMahon’s questionable dealings with a professional development provider – Excellence Reflex Consulting LLC – in excess of amounts actually earned for the services provided to the District.
“Based on the pattern of communications and the changes made to ostensibly encompass expenses which would not otherwise be paid for under the contract, it’s reasonable to infer that Superintendent McMahon … 1) knowingly encouraged Mr. Tschang to modify his invoices such that the invoices had higher hours reported in order to encompass expenses, or 2) negligently failed to inspect or otherwise investigate blatantly fraudulent invoices before approving said invoices for payment by the District,” the report said.
“That Superintendent McMahon elected to manage these invoices personally (which was not customary for someone in her role) rather than have Mr. Tschang provide his invoices to Accounts Payable consistent with District Policy tends to support an inference that she knowingly encouraged him to modify his invoices. Superintendent McMahon also approved the payment of an invoice which included costs for alcohol in violation of federal regulations,” the report stated.
It also noted that the district wound up overpaying Excellence Reflex Consulting LLC by $4583.89.
How the complaint originated
It is clear from the report compiled by Arrowood LLP that the investigation into McMahon’s conduct evolved within the School Department’s Central Office. Margaret Ferrick began working as the deputy superintendent for Saugus Public Schools on May 23, 2022. Ferrick and McMahon appeared to have “a close and collaborative working relationship,” according to the report. It noted that she felt “supported” by the superintendent.
Ferrick submitted her notice of resignation to Saugus Public Schools on April 23, 2023, and made officials aware she had secured a position as superintendent for schools in Georgetown. “Her resignation tends to bolster the credibility of statements she made to investigators, as it suggests she was unlikely to have the ulterior motive of trying to have Superintendent McMahon removed in an effort to assume the position of superintendent,” the report noted.
McMahon had granted Ferrick access to her email account in connection with overseeing the district during the superintendent’s absence. Ferrick had seen an email the superintendent had received from Relay concerning consulting services she had contracted to perform for Relay, separate from her role as superintendent. Ferrick had kept a copy of the email. Later Ferrick became concerned about a Relay-associated consultant who had charged the district for alcohol purchases, which were not permitted.
Another administrator brough to Ferrick’s attention that an invoice appeared to have been revised, but sought the same total reimbursement as the invoice with expenses. Ferrick and another administrator met with Pola Andrews, the executive director of Finance and Administration, to express their concerns. Andrews reported that she asked for documentation to support the allegations. Ferrick indicated she has documentation, but did not provide it to her. After that meeting, Ferrick went to the attorney for the School Committee, who later reported her concerns to School Committee Chair Vincent Serino and Vice Chair John Hatch.
By the time Ferrick had met with the School Committee attorney, there had been somewhat of a breakdown between McMahon and Serino, according to McMahon. McMahon testified that she “worked to not meet with Mr. Serino where I could be alone because he lies.” Ferrick said that on Jan. 18, 2023, McMahon asked her to be “a witness” to a conversation between her and Serino. According to Ferrick, Serino told McMahon there would be a conversation about her at the School Committee meeting and provided information about the Open Meeting Law. Ferrick said McMahon also told her that she would be going voluntarily on paid administrative leave on the advice of her attorney.
During the course of the investigation, other concerns were raised about McMahon. Multiple witnesses talked about a negative working environment where subordinates feared retaliation from McMahon.
There were high hopes for McMahon, who received an unprecedented five-year contract worth more than a $1 million over its duration. The superintendent set out to turn Saugus Public Schools from one of the state’s 10 worst public school systems to one of the 10 best. But after being on the job 18 months, McMahon went on paid administrative leave for another 10 months before the Committee voted unanimously to fire her.
“It’s regrettable,” School Committee Member Ryan Fisher said.
“But I stand by my decision. I want every superintendent to succeed because I want the district to succeed. We didn’t ask for this, but had a responsibility to respond professionally, and we did,” Fisher said.