Lowell Board Fires Schools Supt. on 4-3 Vote
LOWELL -- Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui is no longer an employee of Lowell Public Schools.
Four months after the School Committee voted 4-3 to start the process, a similarly split committee voted to finalize his termination Wednesday night, following months of scheduled and re-scheduled hearings, executive sessions, failed settlement negotiations and grim budget discussions.
Between the two votes, no minds changed on the committee.
The four who opposed Khelfaoui’s continued employment in July -- Mayor William Samaras and School Committee members Gerry Nutter, Jackie Doherty and Connie Martin -- voted to terminate at Wednesday’s meeting. School Committee members Dominik Lay, Robert Hoey Jr. and Andre Descoteaux maintained their support for the now former-superintendent and opposed the motion.
But why was Khelfaoui fired?
In statements made before the vote by the sole speaker during public comment, United Teachers of Lowell President Paul Georges, and members of the School Committee, two distinct narratives emerged.
Those who voted to terminate Khelfaoui described a school district crippled by financial and other mismanagement, culminating in the motion to remove the superintendent from his post. Those who supported Khelfaoui -- who was not at Wednesday’s meeting -- described political maneuvering and personal conflicts leading to the motion to start the termination process followed by a scramble to justify the move.
Martin, who submitted the original termination motion with Doherty, said “severe deficiencies” that would impact student’s education led her to pursue termination.
She emphasized financial troubles, referencing the findings of an internal budget review completed last month that found a $2.4 million deficit, not including $2.2 million in unexpected additional revenue. A state audit of a revolving fund found an additional $2.1 million in unallowable offsets, though the district does not have to start repaying this until next fiscal year.
“We were looking at a $2.5 million problem back in April and May. Since that time we’ve had more than $4 million dollars that have come back in and yet we’re still behind the eight ball,” she said.
She also said interactions between the administration and staff and families “simply did not rise to an appropriate level of professionalism.”
Doherty said her concerns, including with human resources, were well documented over the months preceding the vote.
“There’s a trail of my concern based on motions and speaking on the floor,” she said.
Nutter discussed his financial concerns, including his vote against pushing sick leave buyback costs into the following fiscal year as it would create a structural deficit. That motion ultimately passed in a 6-1 vote.
After rebutting statements by members of the School Committee who support Khelfaoui -- particularly Hoey -- Samaras summed up his own view.
“The thing that I saw were certain problems that were created and they were either created by intent or created because of lack of knowledge whatever it is it made my decision, my choice, in the best interest of the children in the city of Lowell,” he said.
He said as more information is released in coming months residents will be able to make their own decisions.
Those who support Khelfaoui told a far different story.
“Is it really about finance or is it about control?” Georges said.
Reading from a prepared statement, Hoey said a conflict over the district’s busing contract, which was forwarded to the state Inspector General was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” In June, the state agency received a complaint about the district’s special-education transportation contract that was awarded last year to a company for significantly more money than another bidder.
Hoey went on to describe an obstructionist School Committee, yearning for runner-up superintendent candidate Jay Lang, and frustrated over a few of Khelfaoui’s key hires, including the athletic director and the head of the high school.
“Make no mistake, this is all about who controls HR,” he said.
Doherty responded to this portion of his statement and said her concerns regarding district hiring pertained to overall practices, not certain positions.
Hoey accused City Solicitor Christine O’Connor of conspiring to fire the superintendent, fueled by a disagreement between the two over the handling of a 2015 incident at the high school, regarding viral, racist text messages sent by students.
He said O’Connor and Samaras met without notifying the School Committee and called the executive session minutes “tainted.”
After the meeting, Samaras said Hoey had approved all of these executive session minutes.
“Every School Committee person gets a chance to look at those minutes and say yes I said it, no I didn’t,” Samaras said.
Hoey, Descoteaux and Lay all described what they called unfair treatment in Khelfaoui’s firing process. Lay said he has not seen the method used to fire Khelfaoui since his childhood in Cambodia.
“He was robbed of his right to an evaluation process that we give to all our educators,” Hoey said.
The internal budget review also drew ire from supporters of Khelfaoui, who described it as a way to create panic and justification to fire Khelfaoui after already starting the termination process. In July, the committee had also ordered a third-party audit, but the results have not yet been released.
Lay said this spring Khelfaoui proposed cuts, but was steered away from them by the School Committee.
“It was our School Committee people that directed him to find ways to avoid cuts,” Lay said.
Following the vote, the School Committee met in executive session to discuss releasing executive session minutes related to the contemplation of Khelfaoui’s termination.
An Aug. 24 letter drafted by the School Committee during executive session lists the reasons for Khelfaoui’s termination, but has not been released by either side.
Following the receipt of this letter, Khelfaoui requested a hearing as provided by his contract. It was scheduled and rescheduled multiple times, as settlement negotiations and, once, a posting technicality caused delays.
Last week, Khelfaoui announced he no longer wanted a hearing, calling the procedure a “sham” where the decision -- his termination -- was a foregone conclusion. He said his attorney plans to file a lawsuit following his official termination.
Earlier settlement negotiations also failed, even following an “agreement in principle.” Khelfaoui said he requested a non-disparagement clause, but it was not granted.
Since the July vote Khelfaoui has been on paid administrative leave, earning over $60,000.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins