School employee benefits denied

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 6:15pm

The New Shoreham School Committee and Superintendent Michael Convery affirmed that Block Island School Administrative Assistant Marsha Gutierrez will retire on June 30 after 36 years and six months, without the health insurance benefit in retirement that she claims was included in her employment contract.

At the Committee’s June 17 meeting, Convery read the following prepared statement on “Administrative Assistant Retirement”:

“The position of Administrative Assistant has been posted. The at-will employment of Marsha Gutierrez will end on June 30, 2019. She will be eligible for severance as outlined in correspondence” from the committee’s attorney to Gutierrez “dated July 17, 2018 as follows: She will receive credit for half of the accumulated sick days at a per diem rate of $100 and subject to the same maximum as for certified teachers. Additionally, family health care and Delta Dental will no longer be provided after June 30, 2019, and life insurance will also end on June 30, 2019.”

Convery also informed the Committee that the Open Meetings Act complaint filed by Gutierrez’s attorney Mary Ann Carroll against the School Committee had been denied. “The Attorney General’s Office found no violation had occurred and has closed the complaint,” he said.

The Committee made no comment and took no action following either of Convery’s announcements, and moved on to other personnel matters.

There was also no immediate reaction from the audience, although both earlier and later in the meeting they had repeated their calls for the committee to reverse its decision and honor the employment contract Gutierrezand her attorney maintain is still in force, with a provision giving her lifetime Medicare supplemental insurance benefit paid by the school district.

Unlike the two previous meetings where Gutierrez’s contract was on the agenda – on May 16 and May 28 – Chair William Padien allowed questions and comments from the audience at the June 17 regular meeting, and all five members of the School Committee were present to hear them. (Padien and members Kara Stinnett and Persephone Brown were present for all three meetings. Member Annie Hall was absent on May 16 and member Jessica Willi was absent on May 28.)

The committee got an earful throughout the June meeting, especially when Padien proposed amending the May 28 meeting minutes to explicitly state that a motion declaring that Gutierrez’s contract had expired at the end of the previous school year had passed with a vote of two yea votes (Padien and Hall) and two abstentions (Stinnett and Brown). Willi was absent.

Surprised audience members strenuously objected to Padien’s amendment, and to its conclusion that the motion had passed, leaving Gutierrez without a contract in force. Apparently, many of those present believed that the motion had not been approved because of the two abstentions.

Padien defended his amendment citing voting procedures in Robert’s Rules of Order and attempted to cut off the audience’s comments. He and other committee members cited “litigation” or “the threat of litigation” as their reason for not revisiting their May 28 motion.

“It’s in the hands of the lawyers now,” Hall said. “It’s attorney to attorney,” Padien said several times.

It was not clear during the meeting whether the Committee members meant that Gutierrez’s attorney, Mary Ann Carroll, had filed a lawsuit against the School Committee in R.I. Superior Court, or whether they were referring to Carroll’s earlier letter to First Warden Ken Lacoste notifying the town of her intention to file suit.

Stinnett and Brown were both elected as write-in candidates for open seats on the School Committee in November 2018. During the discussion on the amendment, they admitted that they did not know that their choice to abstain rather than vote either for or against the motion on May 28 meant that it would be approved.

Science teacher Dr. Susan Gibbons questioned what orientation the two newest members had received when they began their terms.

“Who is in charge” of orienting members to their duties and responsibilities, Gibbons asked. There was no answer.

Gibbons said of the Committee’s decision to not honor the disputed contract, “You will never convince me it’s ethical or conscionable, even if it is legal.”

Shortly after Dr. Gibbons’s comments, Padien withdrew his motion to amend the May 28 minutes and called for a motion to table them instead. The motion to table passed and the Committee went on to its regular agenda.

The next two School Committee meetings will begin at 5:35 p.m. on Monday, July 15 and Monday, Aug. 19.