SUSD board approves formation of subcommittee

File photo of Saugus Union School District

Shortly after welcoming its two newest trustees, the Saugus Union School District governing board approved the formation of a subcommittee that would be responsible for investigating former board president Chris Trunkey and the allegations detailed in a cease-and-desist letter from the district’s teachers union.

When the district was informed of Trunkey’s alleged conduct violations in October, the Saugus Teachers Association and its lawyers requested that SUSD’s board clerk serve as the chair of the board’s Code of Conduct subcommittee to consider the allegations.

In November, the SUSD governing board, which included recently retired members Judy Egan Umeck and Paul De La Cerda, elected to postpone the formation of a subcommittee until the district’s newest trustees — David Barlavi and Laura Arrowsmith — assumed their seats on the board. The board believed continuity was a key part to the process, though De La Cerda felt the district shouldn’t wait.

SUSD board members and trustees declined to comment on the discussion that took place during Tuesday’s meeting.

After refusing to release the letter from the teachers association’s attorney prior to the election, district officials released the three-page letter on Wednesday, Nov. 7, the day after Trunkey won re-election to the board.

The cease-and-desist letter stated that Trunkey questioned community members in an attempt to find “dirt” and discredit the STA president in retaliation for the STA endorsing his challenger. The letter also alleged that Trunkey violated the the Educational Employment Relations Act (EERA) and the board’s Code of Conduct.

Per board bylaws, when the district receives evidence or allegations relating to a board member’s conduct, the board president and a member of their choice will form an ad hoc advisory committee that would conduct an investigation.

Since Trunkey’s reign as board president came to an end prior to Tuesday’s meeting, the responsibility of forming the subcommittee fell to Julie Olsen, who was elected president of the board during Tuesday’s district meeting.

At 11:06 p.m., with a few teachers and district staff still in attendance, Olsen informed the room that Trunkey had recused himself from the subcommittee discussion but was deciding to remain at the dais while the board debated action.

“It’s important to know that this item only addresses the formation of a subcommittee,” which would review the available information and determine the next steps, Olsen said. “While I am confident in my ability to be objective on this matter, my first responsibility is to ensure that the needs of the school district and the students and staff that we serve come first.”

After explaining how Trunkey had served as her mentor on the board, Olsen said, “Out of fairness to the complainant, the district and to Mr. Trunkey, I believe that it’s important that everyone can feel confident that the process and outcome not be clouded by even the perception of partiality.”

As a result, Olsen recused herself from heading the committee and asked the board to move forward with a subcommittee chaired by Board Clerk David Powell and a member of his choosing.

Olsen apologized for putting Powell on the spot, but reminded the room that the board can not discuss the subject outside of the public purview.

After a motion was made to make Powell’s place on the subcommittee official, new trustee Barlavi asked if the board could postpone the vote until he could find out more information, citing concerns that he’s uncomfortable voting on a matter where he doesn’t have all of the facts.

“I know there’s lots to consider,” and there are perceptions that the district doesn’t want to reinforce, Barlavi said. “I just wanted to explain as clearly as I could that it is very difficult for me to vote on something if I don’t know what I don’t know.”

Olsen replied that the board had a duty to proceed, before Powell clarified that the subcommittee will not be empowered to conduct an investigation.

Instead, the subcommittee will meet to review the current allegations that are public, which would be the letter in this case, Powell said. If the subcommittee determines the action constitutes a violation of the code of conduct, “then it could meet with the individual board member informally (and/or) can come back to the board at a future meeting and request the power to investigate.”

With Trunkey and Barlavi both recusing themselves for differing reasons, the remaining three board members approved the formation of a subcommittee, which will be comprised of Powell and Arrowsmith — a teacher in the William S. Hart Union High School District.

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