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School board appointment raises questions in Orange

ORANGE — There are two new School Committee members, one of whom has family ties to the district — something that has been a political bone of contention in recent months.

So some people are asking why the committee appointed Chris Mullen, whose mother works in the Butterfield School cafeteria, but passed over Sheriff Chris Donelan, whose wife is principal of Fisher Hill School.

In an earlier meeting this spring, Donelan withdrew his application after his nomination was not seconded at the committee meeting. And John Waters, another candidate who was engaged to and is now married to a school employee, withdrew his application a few weeks later.

In last week’s joint meeting with the Board of Selectmen, Beth Atwood, who is not related to any school employee, was unanimously approved.

All School Committee members were present and the majority of the selectmen voted for Mullen’s appointment.

Selectman Kathy Reinig voted against Mullen’s appointment, in line with earlier statements to the School Committee and The Recorder that she would not vote to appoint members with relatives in the district.

And School Committee member Paul Gervais came in late to the meeting, just missing the vote. He asked his fellow members why they voted to approve Mullen, but balked at Donelan and Waters.

In an interview after the meeting, School Committee Chairwoman Stephanie Conrod admits she acted inconsistently. “I knew the minute I said ‘yes with reservations’ to Ms. Mullen’s appointment, it was a mistake. The fact of the matter is I need to take personal responsibility and say I was wrong …What is done is done. I’ve got my fork ready to eat humble pie and use this as a learning experience.”

But Donelan and School Committee Member Paul Gervais think there was nothing wrong with Conrod’s vote, as Mullen, Donelan and Waters have no conflict of interest as defined by the state’s Ethics Commission.

Donelan maintains the School Committee did the right thing in approving Mullen.

“I appreciate that Chris stepped up to serve. We need good people. There is no conflict of interest just as there was no conflict of interest for me or John.”

Gervais, whose wife, Kelly is a teacher in Fisher Hill, agreed. “There is no conflict of interest unless there is financial gain” by either the committee members or their family. He said he researched the issue when he first came on the committee, as did Donelan before he applied for the empty committee seat last spring.

Both Gervais and Donelan found the state ethics law stipulates they may serve as committee members as long as they recuse themselves during budget discussions relative to their family member’s job. Gervais said he has followed that protocol since he became a member in 2007.

“The law was designed to prevent state officials from hiring their relatives ... which has been a problem and is a real conflict. But I’ve never gained anything financially from being on the committee and “neither has my wife.”

But Conrod maintains that conflict of interest stretches beyond the state’s more narrow legal definition. In an interview this summer, she said School Committee members who are married to school employees “jeopardizes the trust and integrity” of the committee among voters and employees.

School culture is impacted by such conflicts, creating “potential for distrust among staff members through the perception of favoritism … The public expects the school committee to do its job of oversight, free and clear of personal ties in the best interest of public at large, not the best interest of School Committee and its members and families.”

Gervais argued that logic leads to the conclusion that parents of children in the Orange schools would also have a conflict of interest, as they could potentially influence policies that might favor their child’s grade and school. He said Orange needs highly qualified people on the School Committee, and cannot afford to turn skilled and experienced candidates away.

Donelan said that Conrod’s inexperience led to her decisions this summer. He said Conrod “had only been a member of the School Committee for three months before she became chair. She’s not qualified to be chair.”

Conrod may be willing to chalk up her inconsistency in last week’s vote to a learning experience, but she maintains School Committee applicants with family ties to district employees have a conflict of interest. She is, however, willing to “continue this discussion over a ploughman’s platter at the Blind Pig (a pub in Athol)” with Donelan. “Otherwise, I am done with this conversation in the public forum.”

Whether or not Donelan shows up at the Blind Pig, he also seems ready to move on. “The most important thing now is that (Superintendent) Mike Baldassarre has a full school board to do the work that needs to be done to serve the Orange schools.”

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