Embattled Lowell Schools Chief Set to Share His Side
LOWELL -- Months after the Lowell School Committee started the process of terminating Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui, the embattled head of schools has scheduled a hearing to present his side behind closed doors.
The meeting will take place on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., according to the district and City Solicitor Christine O’Connor. A meeting agenda posted on the district’s website indicates the hearing will be held in executive session, meaning it will not be open to the public.
Whether the meeting is open to the public is the choice of the superintendent, according to Khelfaoui’s contract.
O’Connor said the city gave Khelfaoui until 11 a.m. Friday to decide. The agenda was posted at 10:26 a.m.
Khelfaoui’s attorney Michael Long was not in his office Friday according to a receptionist and did not respond to emails requesting comment.
O’Connor said the School Committee is expected to issue a written decision on Khelfaoui’s employment following the hearing, as outlined in his contract.
“There would likely be a vote accompanying the written statement,” she said. Whether this vote will occur in a public or executive session has not been addressed, O’Connor said.
On July 18, the Lowell School Committee voted 4-3 to start the process of terminating Khelfaoui and place him on paid administrative leave.
Just over a month later, on Aug. 24 the School Committee sent Khelfaoui a letter drafted during executive session outlining the reasons for his termination. Neither party has made the contents of this multi-page letter public.
However, the Lowell School Committee and administrators have spent many of its meetings in the intervening weeks discussing the district’s dire financial situation, which includes an over $2 million estimated shortfall in this year’s budget, among other issues.
Members of the School Committee who voted against Khelfaoui mentioned at the July meeting concerns including the budget, human resource practices, a backlog of School Committee motions and bidding policies.
Though turnover among district superintendents is high in Massachusetts -- about 20 percent a year -- Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Tom Scott said a public firing process is “infrequent.”
Scott agreed to speak generally about the process of firing superintendents. Khelfaoui is a member of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and represented by Long, an attorney who is also on retainer for the association. Khelfaoui, not the association, is paying for the superintendent’s legal services, Scott said.
Most turnover in the state is due to retirements, but when a superintendent parts ways on bad terms with a school committee, typically the parties sign a separation agreement, he said.
“That is the preferred way for a School Committee to deal with this, without becoming a public event,” Scott said.
When asked if the committee could still reach a settlement with the superintendent, O’Connor said “that’s always going to be a possibility.”
Glenn Koocher is the executive director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, a group made up of school committees across the state. He said he does not know the specific details of the situation in Lowell, but said the process of firing a superintendent usually involves some type of arbitration.
Both Scott and Koocher said the bar for termination is “good cause.” Scott said there is abundant case law defining what counts as good cause.
Koocher believes the process of firing a superintendent should be made in public, though a superintendent who sees their relationship with the School Committee failing may act preemptively.
The week before the Lowell School Committee voted to start the process of terminating Khelfaoui’s contract, the Randolph School Committee announced Khelfaoui as a finalist for an interim superintendent position. Several days later, Khelfaoui announced his intentions to stay in Lowell citing calls of support from a “majority of members of the Lowell School Committee” and other stakeholders.
Koocher said arbitration normally precludes the need for a lawsuit, because this process has already determined whether there is good cause.
Any payment to the superintendent should also be based on good cause, he said. Scott said other factors, like the remaining length of the contract or the publicness of the proceedings could also affect the payout.
“It makes it very difficult for that superintendent to make any successful move to another position,” Scott said.
When Chelmsford Superintendent Frank Tiano resigned amid accusations of fiscal mismanagement in 2015, the district agreed to pay him more than $140,000 in compensation via a separation agreement. He has since worked as an assistant superintendent in Framingham, and more recently landed a job Uxbridge.
In his first year, his Uxbridge job will pay $10,000 less than he made in Chelmsford, according to his contract.
O’Connor said in the months since the School Committee voted to start the process of terminating Khelfaoui’s contract, she has been in touch with the superintendent’s legal counsel. The superintendent has requested thousands of pages of documents from the district, she said.
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