Khelfaoui Breaks Silence Before Hearing
LOWELL -- Breaking months of media silence, Lowell Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui spoke with The Sun and WCAP Monday, two days before the embattled head of schools is expected to share his side of the story at a hearing before the Lowell School Committee.
Khelfaoui’s perspective diverges from the School Committee and the city on a number of issues, including the details of the upcoming hearing, which he said he wants to be public.
“I have nothing to hide. This team has nothing to hide,” Khelfaoui said. “I wanted to go public and we have always said we’re going to go public.”
However, the hearing was posted on the Lowell Public Schools website just before 10:30 a.m. Friday as an executive session not open to the public.
City Solicitor Christine O’Connor said the meeting was posted following multiple requests to the attorney representing Khelfaoui, Michael Long, to specify whether Khelfaoui wanted a hearing in public or private. These requests included a phone conversation on Monday with the attorney and a follow-up email Thursday requesting a decision by 10 a.m. Friday, she said. A previous article cited this deadline as 11 a.m., but O’Connor said she misspoke.
O’Connor said Khelfaoui did not return a decision before this deadline so the meeting was posted as an executive session. As of early Monday afternoon, the city had still not received any notice of a final decision from Khelfaoui, she said.
“What we have been told is he was still debating whether to have it in private or public session,” O’Connor said. “If you really wanted it to be public, then why on earth have you not responded?”
In Khelfaoui’s interview on WCAP with Paul Georges, president of United Teachers of Lowell and a supporter of the superintendent, Khelfaoui responded to the posting of the hearing as an executive session.
“I think the reason it was posted, without getting into the details, I know they were negotiating on the format back and forth between my attorney and the other one,” he said. “It could be probably just an oversight, because normally today would be the deadline, 48 hours, but today happens to be a holiday. ... It really wouldn’t matter because the meeting is always posted, the meeting always starts public and then at the meeting there’s a motion to go executive session.”
In a conversation with The Sun, Khelfaoui said his attorney was out of the country last week and would not return until Tuesday.
Whether Khelfaoui can now request a public meeting is another matter of debate. According to his contract, the superintendent has the power to request either a public or private hearing.
The contract does not give a deadline for making this decision and neither does an explainer of the state’s Open Meeting Law from the Office of Attorney General Maura Healey. Calls to the Division of Open Government were unanswered on Monday, a government holiday.
Khelfaoui said the request for a public session the night of the hearing Wednesday is well within his rights. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. in City Council Chambers.
“It’s my right (to an executive session) that I’m waiving,” he said.
O’Connor said the “reasonableness standard” applies in this case, because the city needs to prepare for the hearing. If the session is public it will be recorded, but if it’s private then the city needs to hire a stenographer, she said.
She also said the public is less likely to attend or tune in to a meeting posted as a executive session, but later made open to the public.
O’Connor said the city is still willing to try to hold a public session if they receive notice, but Lowell would need to apply for “a waiver from the state,” because the change would be made less than 48 hours before the start of the hearing.
Mayor William Samaras said he will not know whether the session will be held in public or private session until Tuesday.
During the interviews Monday, Khelfaoui touched on a number of other topics, focusing on what he called the process, not the content of the School Committee’s accusation.
The School Committee voted to start the process of terminating Superintendent Khelfaoui’s contract on July 18 and sent him a multi-page letter outlining their reasons on Aug. 24. Neither party has made a copy of this letter public.
In the days leading up to the July vote, Khelfaoui was a finalist for a job in Randolph, though he dropped out of the running after he said he received messages of support from members of the community and four of the seven School Committee members.
“It became very clear to me at that time that four of the School Committee members wanted me to stay,” he said.
Samaras, the so-called swing vote, said he met with Khelfaoui during this time, but did not make any promises or intimations of support.
Khelfaoui said members of the School Committee have been trying to push him out of the position since “day one” in 2015.
From January to July of this year, he and other administrators worked in what Khelfaoui termed a “hostile environment.” Administrators were asked to constantly write reports, “wasting half their time on paperwork” and damaging morale, he said.
“It starts taking away from the effectiveness of the team,” he said. He later added, “At some point you ask yourself what is the best for the students.”
When Khelfaoui left, Georges said the city issued a “gag order” on communications between Khelfaoui and current administrators.
Samaras disputes this. He said Khelfaoui, who was placed on paid administrative leave, no longer has “rights or access” to the district’s information. He said, to his knowledge, neither the School Committee nor others forbid communication between Khelfaoui and district administrators.
Khelfaoui said the absence of communication by current administrators with himself or former chief financial officer Gary Frisch means the district has not accessed clarification on perceived budget issues.
“If they had reached out to me, they could have gotten some of the answers,” he said, adding communication with past administrators is common during transition periods.
The $500,000 in sick-leave buyback deferred to the next budget he said was a way for the district to address a $2.5 million shortfall during the most recent budgeting season. The approach was discussed by the School Committee during the budgeting process, Khelfaoui said.
He also took issue with the way recent budget reviews and some on the School Committee have portrayed issues with funds for food services and phone bills.
The School Committee made the process of terminating his contract public -- an unusual move that has left him few options, he said.
“At this point they’ve made a lot of allegations and so forth and I have no option but to respond to them,” he said.
He said his attorney requested verbally five to six weeks ago, then in writing last week, to sit down in a “civil and amicable” way to resolve this issue. Khelfaoui said he received no response.
O’Connor said mention of a settlement came up for the first time last week, but said neither Khelfaoui nor his attorney have requested a sit down with the committee.
“Any potential settlement discussions are confidential, but I can say five or six weeks ago he did not request a sit down with the committee,” she said.
When asked by The Sun whether he would continue serving as the Lowell superintendent if asked, Khelfaoui said superintendent positions typically hire between November and March and start in July. He said the School Committee’s process and media coverage has damaged his reputation.
“Until this happened, I always had a very high rating,” he said. In the WCAP interview, Khelfaoui described recent negative portrayals of his time as a superintendent in Winchendon as misleading and inaccurate.
Khelfaoui said his attorney has requested documents from the district and submitted a “long list” of people to appear at the hearing, in response to the allegations.
“The decision was very clear in my mind,” he said. “I have absolutely nothing to hide and I’m very proud of what we did in Lowell in three years, giving them the best three years on record on both accomplishments and financial surplus.”
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins