The state is investigating the school district and both towns committee chairman and vice chairman were alerted by member David Forth on Friday, Oct. 30, according to Superintendent Jeffrey Szymaniak, who also received the letter.
No one seems to have a clear idea what the subject of the investigation might be, however.
Forth said he had reached out to Inspector General and the Attorney General’s office in August about the process “if the committee needed to look into having an investigation or have the state get involved.”
The Inspector General followed up with him a couple of weeks later, requesting documentation from him, which he provided.
“A couple of weeks after that, they called to just inform me that the investigation was referred to the Department of Revenue and that the DOR is investigating the towns of Whitman and Hanson and the school district,” Forth said. “That is, honestly, all the information I have. … I didn’t ask for it, request it, but I was informed of it. They asked me for documentation, so I provided it.”
Committee member Fred Small asked what documentation was provided, but Forth said he was not certain he was permitted to say.
“I don’t want to do anything that could get me in trouble with the state,” he said, noting he was not even sure his complaint carried the weight to ignite an investigation. “How they went about that choice, I do not know. You would have to ask them.”
Member Christopher Howard made a motion, in the spirit of transparency that Forth provide the committee with any and all communications he has had with any state agency pertaining to the school district.
Forth, who said he wanted the school district and committee officials, as well as town administrators to know about the investigation, also indicated he would comply with the request for documentation if the state agencies involved would allow it.
Small said the committee should be permitted to have access to the same information as other parties to the investigation unless the agencies have specifically indicated is was privileged.
The committee voted 9 to 1, with Forth dissenting, to have the information provided.
“I haven’t been notified from the state,” said Szymaniak, who contacted town administrators in Whitman and Hanson about the matter. Neither had heard of the situation.
Whitman’s interim Town Administrator Lisa Green said her town had not received “notification from any state agency regarding an investigation.”
She put town counsel on notice and reported they, too, had received no notice from any agency.
“You noted that there was an ongoing and an active investigation, however none of us have received any notice of any type of investigation, which is highly unusual for the state,” Green said to Forth.
Hanson Town Administrator John Stanbrook also said he had not been notified, either.
“I’m a little bit baffled by the whole thing, and I hope we can have some sort of explanation,” said Stanbrook, who attended the meeting remotely.
Meeting in-person Wednesday, Nov. 4, the committee was cautioned by Chairman Bob Hayes that it could be switched back to virtual meetings if Gov. Charlie Baker determines that is necessary because of the increase in new COVID cases. Small also attended the meeting virtually for the second time in as many sessions.
Szymaniak called district legal counsel on Monday, but he has not yet received notification from the state.
Committee member Mike Jones asked how long Forth had been on the committee. When Forth replied five months, Jones noted this was the second occasion an issue raised by Forth resulted in a “house full of lawyers.”
“What’s going on, man?” Jones asked.
Forth countered that Jones had no right to address him directly and accuse him of causing some sort of chaos.
Hayes also reminded members to address each other through him.
Green, an attorney who has, in the past, done business with the Inspector General and AG’s offices as well as the DOR and the Division of Local Services, said “Something is not making sense here.”
“If you made a phone call to a state agency, and you made a complaint, they’re going to investigate it,” she said. “But you sit here today and say you do not know what type of documents they asked you for or [are] you not revealing the type of documents they asked you for?”
“Am I being cross-examined right now?” Forth countered.
Green replied that she was asking simple questions as a representative of the town of Whitman, which is one of the subjects of an investigation they have little to no information about.
“This is not an accusation, we’re asking you simple questions that you are not answering,” she said. “If somebody calls me and says, ‘I want your tax return for 1982, I want a copy of your marriage certificate, I want a copy of your birth certificate,’ these are documents. For you to sit here and say you do not know what type of documents were requested …”
Forth interrupted saying there was no request for specific documents, but rather for any documents he had in his possession and would be willing to supply copies to the towns.
“I’m not withholding anything,” he said. “I just don’t want to sit here and say, ‘Oh I gave this document and we look into it [only to find] I actually gave a different document.’”
He said he did not know whether or not the towns had been contacted.
Szymaniak expressed his frustration that Forth didn’t tell him, the chief executive of the district until Friday afternoon, Oct. 30 “that there is an ongoing investigation of our district and I have no idea what that is.”
He ticked off issues that would raise alarm is the subject of investigation: budget, academic, MCAS.
“Did we do something wrong?” Szymaniak said. “When I asked you on Monday to follow up, I got nothing from that, so I don’t even know what agency is looking at us right now.”
Forth said he was assuming it pertains to the budget because the Department of Revenue is involved.
Szymaniak said Forth has another records request filed with the district, which Forth said is unrelated to the investigation. The cost of records requests are $25 per hour plus copy costs, which would be billed to Forth as the requesting party.
Member Dan Cullity asked if Forth was asking as a citizen or a member of the School Committee when he called the AG office. Forth said he told state officials he was calling as an individual and was not reporting a complaint, only asking what the process would be.
Cullity said if Forth got a call back, he must be considered the one who filed a complaint.
“They just don’t come out to somebody and say, ‘Hey, by the way, we need documentation,’ unless you called to put in a complaint,” Cullity said. He added that the School Committee can’t afford to go chasing down rabbit holes and asked if Forth was going to continue to act as a citizen or a member of the School Committee.
Forth maintained that the state’s call for documentation led him to believe they were already investigating the district. Howard asked why Forth was informing them about the issue.
“I’m just trying to be on the same page,” Forth said.
Committee member Hillary Kniffen asked how “wasting a half hour” on the issue helps educate children during a pandemic. Jones asked what the issue involved is.
Forth said his issue was with the assessment and school funding formulas were done correctly, but stopped short of confirming that is the state’s investigation.
“He honestly believes that, after calling the state, the state just calls him and starts randomly asking these questions,” Jones said.