School board meets in secret over Ruiz

DUSTIN LUCA/Staff PhotoRetired Revere Public Schools Superintendent Paul Dakin is seen through the window of one of two closed doors into the Salem School Committee Chambers at Collins Middle School late Monday morning, as the School Committee discussed the situation surrounding district Superintendent Margarita Ruiz on Monday.

SALEM — The School Committee met behind closed doors for more than three hours Monday to discuss the "reputation, character and complaints brought against" school district Superintendent Margarita Ruiz, as well as any potential disciplinary action.

The closed-door session is the latest in a series of developments since Ruiz announced a sudden turnover in leadership last month at Salem High School. 

The meeting, held at Collins Middle School on a state holiday and during school vacation, was attended by all seven committee members and by Paul Dakin, a retired Revere superintendent who has been leading a comprehensive "360-degree performance review" of Ruiz.

Ultimately, the committee took no action Monday. Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the School Committee, said the board is still reviewing circumstances and plans to meet again behind closed doors later this week. 

"There are no decisions that have been made," Driscoll said.

While the meeting agenda did not name a specific school employee, Driscoll confirmed that the meeting was about Ruiz. 

Ruiz did not attend the meeting, nor did any district staff or legal representation acting on Ruiz's behalf. The superintendent did not respond to a request for comment Monday. 

Earlier this month, the School Committee said it planned to closely scrutinize Ruiz’s actions leading to the abrupt resignation of former Salem High principal Jennifer DeStefano on March 13 and the same-day hiring of Vittoria Pacifico, who is not licensed with the state to work as a public school principal.

Emails obtained by The Salem News showed Ruiz contacted Pacifico — who has extensive experience in private Catholic schools — about the job several weeks before DeStefano resigned, and offered her the position for 18 months. Ruiz then personally intervened with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its commissioner, Jeff Riley, when she learned Pacifico did not have a principal’s license.

All of this was done out of the public eye and without any apparent consultation with School Committee members, whom Ruiz answers to. Ruiz, however, does have the discretion to hire and fire school principals.

That investigation is separate from the "360-degree performance review" the School Committee launched last fall, a more detailed version of an annual performance review that would measure a superintendent’s performance year to year. At a recent School Committee meeting, Driscoll said the review would focus heavily on interviews with past and present staff and administrators. Those interviews, led by Dakin, had been completed as of earlier this month, and Driscoll previously said the report could be finished before the committee's next regular meeting on Monday, April 22.

Driscoll has said both reviews, which are likely to overlap, would become public once they are complete.

Dakin declined to comment as he left the meeting Monday. Driscoll declined further comment on what was discussed behind closed doors.

Closed-door session legal

Under state law, public bodies cannot evaluate employees in executive session.

But when asked about the issue, Driscoll said the executive session was declared under the first of 10 reasons a body can enter into a closed-door session. That covers discussing "the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health" of a person beyond professional competence, or "to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual," the state's law reads.

The agenda for the meeting, while not mentioning the performance review Dakin conducted, specifically read that it was discussing the "reputation, character, and complaints" facing Ruiz, as well as "discussing any potential disciplinary action."

Ruiz, the target of the session, has the right under state law to be present during the meeting, to have counsel present, to speak on her own behalf and to have an independent record created of the meeting "by audio-recording or transcription, at the individual's expense," the law reads.

When asked whether Ruiz or anyone else from the district was invited to attend, Driscoll declined to comment.  

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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