NEW BEDFORD — Things are already getting contentious in the search for New Bedford's next Superintendent of Schools, and the process has barely even started.

At Monday night's meeting at Keith Middle School of the new School Committee--with newly-elected members Colleen Dawicki and John Oliveira joining the re-elected Josh Amaral along with fellow incumbents Jack Livramento, Chris Cotter and Bruce Oliveira--one of the items on the agenda was the possibility of adding one or two members to the Superintendent Screening Committee.

The committee voted to add two, and possibly, three members, but not before things got heated, with John Oliveira accusing Mayor Jon Mitchell of 'hijacking' the superintendent search as well as suggesting the search itself may be fixed, and with Cotter accusing Mitchell of not living in reality.

The Screening Committee was selected last month at a special meeting of the School Committee, in which Mayor Mitchell--who serves as Chairman Ex Officio of the body--presented a list of seven proposed members that were voted on and approved by the School Committee as a whole.

Monday night, Gail Fortes, the executive director of the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts, and Ann Przystarz, a grandmother of a special needs student who previously worked on the Hayden-McFadden turnaround plan, were also voted in as members of the Search Committee. Cotter was voted in as well, but his appointment to the committee needs clearance from legal counsel to ensure that joining Amaral, the lone member of the School Committee voted onto the Search Committee, would not violate the state's Open Meeting law.

Fortes was nominated by Jack Livramento, while Przystarz was nominated by Cotter, who in effect nominated also himself when he suggested than any member of the School Committee that wished to take part in the Search Committee be allowed to do so. Cotter, who spoke out against Mayor Mitchell coming with a prepared list of Screening Committee members at the previous meeting, said those who are elected officials for the city should have a lot more input in the process "rather than just giving it to an outside agency with just one sitting (School) Committee member."

Cotter contends he told Mitchell that he wished to serve on the Search Committee, but that has name was not on the list of seven proposed members submitted by Mitchell.

"I had interest prior to you appointing the initial seven people," Cotter said. "Who put the initial seven names to paper? Not me."

A rousing back-and-forth ensued between Mitchell and Cotter, with the mayor stating it was a discussion in which everyone had the chance to submit names.

"Was I given the chance to express I was interested?" Cotter asked.

"Absolutely," responded Mitchell. "You could have nominated yourself."

Cotter laughed at that, and replied, "Not when you put the seven names to paper, hand-picked by you."

Mitchell contended that there was a vote, in which Cotter participated, and that Cotter could access the tape of the meeting from cable access if he needed to check. Cotter said he didn't need to review the tape.

"Then you've got two different sets of realities then," Mitchell said.

"Mine's real, yours is not, I guess," Cotter replied.

"Yeah, OK," Mitchell retorted.

John Oliveira then shared his own concerns with the process.

"I have a problem with this as well. The whole Screening Committee, the whole process of finding a superintendent, has been hijacked by you, Mr. Chairman," Oliveira told Mitchell. "You put the names out, there was no discussion. Why we had two people that were on the previous search committee on this one, I don't know, because I don't think they did a really good job the last time (in selecting Dr. Durkin)."

"You said the School Committee and the mayor are unequivocally committed to furthering the reform effort," Oliveira continued. "Please don't speak for me. I am not behind this reform effort of the current administration. I think it's bad for our children."

Oliveira also questioned why the public was not being consulted, and why salary was not discussed before putting out a proposed salary range of $195,000-$225,000 per year.

"And your timeline sounds like you already have somebody that you want in place," Oliveira said to Mitchell. "Because this timeline is totally unrealistic to get that community input, and then get the applications into the process, and then throwing in that residency is not required. I think this is wrong, I think this is being hijacked, and I think people need to step up and say, 'this is wrong.' This is local government at its worst."

Bruce Oliveira then motioned to have Fontes, Przystarz and Cotter added to the Search Committee, pending legal counsel finding no reason why Cotter can not be a part of it. The three were eventually unanimously approved, but not before more heated discussion.

After Amaral expressed concerns about having too large of a committee making it hard to figure out everyone's schedules, he also said he thought picking Screening Committee members in open session was "not a great thing." Mitchell agreed, stating, "Yeah, that's the point. At some point, it becomes unfeasible to do it in a sensible way."

"It's not feasible or realistic to put your nominations on it without asking," John Oliveira chimed in.

"You sat in the back of the room and you heard the School Committee vote on it," noted Mitchell, referring to Oliveira's presence in the audience because he was not yet a sworn member of the School Committee at that time. In addition, because of No Trespass order issued by Superintendent Dr. Pia Durkin for all New Bedford Schools properties, Oliveira was only able to attend that last meeting due to the invitation of Mitchell, who felt Oliveira needed to be present to get "up to speed" before his first meeting as a committee member.

"You were asked to tell me what you thought," Mitchell said.

"I had a short conversation with you, Mr. Mayor, was what do you foresee the new superintendent looking like," Oliveira replied. "This had nothing to do with Search Committees. This has been hijacked."

"Just keep saying that over and over, OK?" Mitchell said.

Amaral tried to calm tensions by explaining that most of the Screening Committee duties are "clerical" work, weeding out candidates, and that the finalists will still come back for approval from the entirety of the School Committee.

"That's when everybody will have their say. That's when public input becomes really critical," he said. "And it's important that this board convey a message of competance and a message that this is a district you want to apply in, you want come and be our superintendent. It's a little too early to muddy up the process with allegations one way or the other."

The Screening Committee will have its first meeting January 17th at 7 p.m. at Keith Middle School. The plan is for the committee to begin accepting applications February 9, limiting the candidates to a field of semifinalists before selecting the finalists by March 2, and then conducting public interviews with the hope of having a final selection by late March.

In other news, John Oliveira posted on his Facebook page following the meeting that the School Committee had voted to keep his No Trespass order in place. He wrote, "I can go to full meetings, but not allowed to go to subcommittee meetings without a police officer." It is unclear at the time of this writing who will pay for the officer to accompany Oliveira to the meetings.

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