By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — Tensions ran high between the School Committee and Town Moderator Joe Markey during a Jan. 4 meeting regarding an Essex Tech School Committee appointment.
Essex Tech’s School Committee consists of 20 members, 17 of which serve as representatives from the cities and towns that send students to the vocational school. The commonwealth’s secretary of agriculture appoints three additional members. Under Essex Tech’s bylaws, moderators appoint town representatives to the Essex Tech school board and municipal school committees including Lynnfield’s are required to sign off on a moderator’s appointment.
Wirthmore Lane resident Gary Hathaway has served as Lynnfield’s representative on the Essex Tech School Committee for the last several years. Markey nominated Bancroft Street resident Michael Geary to replace Hathaway on the Essex Tech school board.
Markey said Geary has worked as Lynn Public Schools’ assistant director of health and physical education since September 2010.
“I interviewed a couple of people for this position and I came up with a litmus test on what I thought would be a great School Committee member,” said Markey. “The person really needs to align with the values of our district and have the right experience so they can make independent and informed decisions. Mike is an administrator in the city of Lynn, where he oversees 30 employees who work as physical education and health teachers. He writes the curriculum for not only regular schools, but also the vocational school. He has quite a bit of experience.”
Markey said Geary has prioritized social-emotional learning in the Lynn school system, which he noted is also a major focus area for Lynnfield school officials.
“Mike brings a unique set of skills to the table,” said Markey.
School Committee Chairman Rich Sjoberg read a letter from Essex Tech School Committee Chairman Mark Strout into the public record that urged Hathaway to be reappointed to his position. Strout sent the letter on behalf of his colleagues and Essex Tech Superintendent Dr. Heidi Riccio.
“Gary has been a valued School Committee member, who has served on the Policy Subcommittee in the position of vice chair,” Strout stated. “I recently requested that Gary move to the Finance Subcommittee due to his overall knowledge of the 120 acre campus, comprising 20 buildings, 1,642 students, 300 employees and a nearly $30 million budget. As well, Gary’s involvement with the Essex Tech Foundation has brought in tens of thousands of dollars, providing much needed scholarships for many of our most needy students. Further, Gary’s seniority has provided stability to our very large committee as some of our members have recently retired.”
Sjoberg asked Markey how Hathaway’s values do not correlate with Lynnfield’s.
Markey said Hathaway has “served honorably” on the Essex Tech School Committee.
“Gary has done a good job, but change is a good thing when you have a chance to put a seasoned school administrator who has curriculum experience and budgetary experience in a position,” said Markey. “I think getting people involved in the community who haven’t served is really important. I appoint the majority of the Finance Committee in Lynnfield, and I re-evaluate every member who comes up every time. I think getting new people involved is a great thing because it brings a fresh perspective. I wish the Essex Tech superintendent and School Committee sent me the letter, but I wasn’t afforded that opportunity.”
In response to a question from School Committee member Jamie Hayman, Markey said, “I have a better understanding of what the children, parents and constituents in Lynnfield want than a superintendent and board members who don’t live here.”
“I am beholden to the voters of Lynnfield and they are not,” said Markey. “I am putting Mike before the School Committee based on his merits. It has nothing to do with Mr. Hathaway.”
Hayman said he was struggling with appointing Geary to the Essex Tech School Committee because the candidate did not disclose that he served as the technical high school’s boys’ hockey team’s head coach for three years. He also noted that Markey was an assistant coach during Geary’s tenure.
“Have you consulted with the State Ethics Commission or filed a disclosure with the town clerk indicating you are a former employee of Essex Tech and you are appointing your former boss, who is also a former employee of Essex Tech, to the board that oversees Essex Tech?” asked Hayman. “To me, it feels like a total conflict of interest.”
Markey said appointing Geary was not a conflict of interest because he was an unpaid volunteer hockey coach.
“I wasn’t paid by Essex Tech because I wasn’t an employee,” said Markey.
Geary said he did not disclose his past Essex Tech coaching experience because he wanted to highlight his work experience and his current tenure serving as head coach of the Wakefield Memorial High School boys’ hockey team.
“I was not looking mislead you folks,” said Geary. “I just put my most current up-to-date information about my current employment.”
“It seems pretty relevant,” said Hayman in response.
Sjoberg asked Geary how long was he employed by Essex Tech and why did he leave.
“I coached for three years,” said Geary. “Wakefield plays a higher level of hockey.”
Hayman recalled that Geary did not mention why he wanted to join the Essex Tech School Committee in his cover letter. He inquired why he wanted to join the board.
Geary said his experience with developing health, physical education and social-emotional learning curriculum would make him a “good ally” to the Essex Tech School Committee.
“I think I would do an exceptional job advocating for the Lynnfield students attending Essex Tech and making sure their needs are being met,” said Geary.
Hayman asked Geary what will be his priorities at Essex Tech.
“There are different ways to learn at vocational schools because they offer a lot of different programs that students can enjoy,” said Geary. “I don’t have the programs in front of me, but it’s a state-of-the-art school that offers a ton of vocational programs that I can help with.”
School Committee member Kate DePrizio asked Geary why he is interested in joining the Essex Tech School Committee.
“I think Essex Tech would benefit from my experience,” said Geary.
DePrizio asked Geary if he was trying to “mislead” the School Committee by omitting his tenure coaching Essex Tech boys’ hockey.
Geary said no.
“If any of you folks reached out to me before this meeting, I would have addressed your concerns,” said Geary.
“I wish the committee asked me these questions before we were in a public forum,” said Markey.
While DePrizio said Geary and Markey could have disclosed their past Essex Tech hockey coaching experience in a “neater package,” she said Sjoberg and Hayman should have shown both men “a little more grace” when questioning them.
“I don’t understand what is going on here because we have a well-respected Essex Tech School Committee member,” said Hayman in response. “I am struggling with the optics standpoint. There has been no public disclosure of facts.”
School Committee Vice Chairwoman Stacy Dahlstedt said Geary has an “impressive resume” and has “some great skills.” However, she was concerned that Geary did not disclose his past experience coaching the Essex Tech boys’ hockey team on his resume and cover letter.
“It seems odd to me that you did not reference your experience working for the school when you are interested in obtaining a position on the Essex Tech School Committee,” said Dahlstedt.
In response to a question from Sjoberg, Geary said he got to know Markey when the moderator was attending Lynnfield High and played boys’ hockey.
“We have stayed in touch since then,” said Geary.
Markey concurred with Geary’s viewpoint.
“I was a volunteer coach at Essex Tech,” added Markey. “I was never compensated. I did coach at Wakefield Memorial High School with Mr. Geary, but I left a year-and-a-half ago due to being a full-time lawyer.”
DePrizio suggested that Markey reach out to the State Ethics Commission about Geary’s appointment.
“I know you are a man of integrity and it will show you are in good standing,” said DePrizio.
Markey informed the Villager on Jan. 5 that the State Ethics Commission and Town Counsel Tom Mullen told him appointing Geary is not a conflict of interest because the moderator was an unpaid assistant coach.
The School Committee is tentatively scheduled to vote on Geary’s appointment on Tuesday, Jan. 18. School Committeeman Phil McQueen recused himself from the discussion because Geary is one of his supervisors.