EASTON — The Southeast Regional School District School Committee, in a context of growing lack of trust in President Tony Branch’s leadership due to a personal legal battle, kept Branch narrowly as president. Monday’s tense eviction attempt, the second this month, failed 5-5, with Branch himself voting for the decision.
Branch’s displeasure comes as the committee grapples with its most important task: hiring a new superintendent. The effort is at least six weeks behind schedule, and one of the five finalists has dropped out.
Longtime superintendent Luis Lopes recently called on Branch to step down as chairman. District teachers, through their union, have recently added their voice to these calls for new school board leadership.
Lopes, who is credited with a turnaround in the fortunes of the district and its flagship vocational high school, is retiring this summer. The district had hoped to have its new hire in place by April 1, so Lopes could show the new superintendent the ropes.
The Southeast Regional School District Teachers’ Union, American Federation of Teachers Local 1849, released a letter saying its members had lost faith in Branch. The letter refers to Branch’s first censorship attempt, which failed at the April 12 committee meeting. The unsigned letter goes on to say, “It is troubling to have to send this letter to address matters that distract the school committee from its primary duties of serving and maintaining school excellence.” The letter asks Branch to resign as president, to withdraw from the superintendent selection process, and to take a leave of absence from the school committee.
Branch’s legal battle
Growing discomfort with Branch’s leadership comes in the third year of a legal battle between Branch, a civil rights activist from Brockton, and Aidan Kearney, a blogger from Worcester.
Kearney, who uses the alias Turtleboy, alleged that Branch was a “false bishop“which exists for the” sole purpose of defrauding taxpayers and stoking racial tensions. Branch sued Kearney for defamation in August 2019.
More recently, Kearney released inflammatory personal allegations taken from court documents filed by Branch’s ex-wife during a divorce. The Enterprise has not been able to independently verify these documents because a family court judge has “qualified” them.
Kearney and about five supporters attended Monday’s meeting, waving signs and sometimes shouting comments. Branch threatened to have them removed from the meeting.
On April 12, Branch told The Enterprise that he would have no further comment on his ex-wife or their divorce.
According to Massachusetts and Florida public records, Branch and his ex-wife married in May 2007, when Branch was 40 and his wife was 20. Branch sued his then-wife for divorce in 2013 and a judge granted the divorce in July 2016.
The company also reported controversies involving Branch in 2017, such as a firearms charge and federal tax lien.
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The branch is the first black chairman of the district school committee. He repeated several times that he had no intention of retiring.
“We live in a democracy, where people have civil rights. I have civil rights,” Branch said on April 12. “There will be no resignation from (being) president, there will be no resignation from the seat.”
Branch made a similar public statement during Monday’s spirited school committee meeting.
Branch’s roles in Brockton include that of chairman of the city council Diversity Commissionmember of the board of directors of the Cape Verdean Association, member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending and first vice-president of the Brockton Area Branch NAACP.
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A “distraction” for the school committee
Lopes previously told The Enterprise that some committee members believed the legal matter was “causing a distraction” for the committee.
“There is an ongoing legal matter between him and another individual,” Lopes said. “And that’s a legal question for the courts to decide.”
Lopes said he recently issued a public statement urging Branch to step down as president. The committee does not have the power to remove Branch as chair or from the committee entirely, as it would require a public recall vote to do so, according to Lopes.
“People are innocent until proven guilty,” fellow committee member Robin Zoll of Stoughton told The Enterprise.
An April 12 vote to censure or remove Branch as leader of the elected group failed 5-4, with Branch voting against the motion. He would have trailed 4-4 even without Branch voting for himself.
On Monday, West Bridgewater school board member Susan Sullivan renewed the motion asking Branch to step down as president. After a loud and intense discussion, this vote failed 5-5. Voters on either side were consistent with Branch’s first attempt at censure, with school committee member Michael Pietrowski of Easton, who was absent for the first vote, wavering on his vote, first asking if he could s to abstain, then deciding to join the “yes” voters, asking Branch to relinquish his presidency.
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The secret ballot flouted the law on transparency
Adding to the existing dismay with the branch is an open meeting law violation complaint filed by Sharon school board member Mindy Kempner. Under the guidance of the Branch, committee members had ranked the superintendent nominees by email ballot.
“It’s important that our thought process be public,” Kempner said Monday.
A school council law expert, Jim Hardy of the Massachusetts Association of School Councils, spoke at length on Monday about why the attorney general would likely find the email survey to be in violation of the law and what the board can do. to resolve the situation.
“You can’t have a secret ballot as a public body,” said Hardy, the private association’s longtime field director.
Branch apologized for the vote via email, saying “It won’t happen again.” The board asks his attorney to respond to the attorney general’s office about the incident.
Hardy also said that, legally speaking, Branch was within his rights to vote on motions asking him to step down as president.
What is the next step for research?
As Hardy explained, the school board is in a tight spot to complete its superintendent search.
The board voted to continue with the current four finalists, with site visits to both candidate districts and candidate visits to the Southeast. Hardy had recommended the committee winnow two candidates in the interests of time. Many superintendents have contracts specifying how much notice they must give their current districts. Candidates with a 90-day notice period are already not on the table for Southeastern to have a new chief in place by July 1, Hardy noted. Candidates with 60 days notice should be offered the job by May 1, which will not happen.
“It hurts me that we’re so far off schedule,” Foxboro school board member Stephen Udden said, though he voted to continue with four candidates, citing the need to get the job done right.
Two of the four candidates are interns, school board member Christine Gaze said at Monday’s meeting.
how they voted
On Monday, Southeastern School Committee members split 5-5 to urge President Tony Branch to step down:
- Andrew Heath – East Bridgewater
- Mindy Kempner – Sharon
- Michael Pietrowski – Easton
- Susan Sullivan – West Bridgewater
- Stephen Udden – Foxboro
- Tony Branch – Brockton
- Christine Gaze-Mansfield
- Barbara Kaplan – Norton
- Gerson Monteiro – Brockton
- Robin Zoll-Stoughton
Editor’s Note: We’ve updated this report to remove an allegation that was not included in the original complaint filed by Branch against Kearney.
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