Ota: Ethics Board Says No Conflict of Interest Resulting From Discrimination Complaint
Former Glover School principal and newly elected School Committee member Brian Ota recently spoke with Marblehead Beacon about the complaint he filed last year with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
Ota served as assistant principal of the Village School from 2011 to 2015 and as principal of Glover from 2015 to 2022. Last year, prior to the start of the 2022-2023 school year, Superintendent of Schools John Buckey elected not to renew Ota’s contract. The details of the MCAD complaint remain confidential, and Ota told Marblehead Beacon, “I’m not going to break that confidentiality,” because it “not only protects me, but it protects Dr. Buckey as well.”
Ota was able to confirm that he filed the complaint with MCAD 14 months ago, and he expects a ruling shortly because the process generally takes about 12 months, though the commission is running behind as a result of the pandemic, he said. Ota noted that the MCAD investigators have already met with him, as well as with Buckey and his lawyers. This is not a lawsuit, Ota emphasized, and he has not hired a lawyer. It is simply a complaint, he says, and while “I can’t answer for MCAD, I did not ask for any reward or compensation.”
The procedure followed by MCAD includes a finding as to whether or not there is “Probable Cause” that discrimination took place, in which case the Commission conducts a “Conciliation” effort “to resolve the matter swiftly and amicably” or proceeds to a “Public Hearing.” A “Lack of Probable Cause” determination “means that the MCAD did not find sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that unlawful discrimination occurred.”
In either case, Ota stressed, he does not plan to pursue any further claims against Buckey. “Whether I win or lose,” he said, “I’m finished with this. I did what I felt I needed to do.”
Prior to contemplating a run for School Committee, Ota explained, he contacted the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission, an independent state agency responsible for administering and enforcing state laws regarding conflict of interest and financial disclosure. “I had several meetings with them,” he said, and “they analyzed the complaint that I had made.” Ota says they advised him that there was not a conflict of interest inherent in his candidacy but that he should not – while the complaint was still active – be involved in evaluating Buckey’s performance as superintendent. As this evaluation was completed prior to last week’s election, and Ota expected the complaint to be resolved soon after, he did not consider it necessary to disclose during the campaign. Prior to being sworn in, as recommended by the Ethics Commission, he filed a disclosure in accordance with Massachusetts state law section 23(b), which requires notification of the appearance of a conflict of interest. He also noted he would consult with the Ethics Commission again should any further issues arise.
Asked about his ability to work effectively with Buckey given the nature of their past interactions, Ota said, “I am a thorough professional. I guarantee there won’t be any poor work environment.” He continued, “I am focused on making this district strong for students, teachers, and families by working on the budget, improving communications, and making sure our school safety protocols are up to date.”
Marblehead Beacon first became aware of the complaint filed by Ota during public comment at the June 29, 2023 School Committee meeting, when Paul Baker – who recently ran unsuccessfully for a School Committee seat – addressed Ota directly, saying, “Mr. Ota, having been elected to serve our schools, will you now drop your wrongful dismissal complaint against the district?”
As Baker was asking his question, School Committee Chair Sarah Fox intervened, calling Baker’s claims a “violation” and stating “I cannot allow the statement that you just made.” Baker went on to request that Ota “please recuse yourself from all budget discussions,” upon which Fox once again asked Baker not to “continue along that line.”
Fox explained to Marblehead Beacon that the entire process for filing a complaint with MCAD provides for confidentiality of both parties in order “to protect the alleged victim so that people feel comfortable coming forward” as well as “to protect the person being accused” until an investigation is conducted. While she emphasized that she “can’t speak to this particular suit whatsoever,” Fox explained that her role as School Committee chair is to ensure that Ota follows appropriate procedures and that she is “impressed and grateful for how proactive Brian has been.” She acknowledged that “conflicts of interest do exist,” and that Ota “handled it the way you are supposed to.”
Baker’s allegation against Ota was one of several noteworthy surprises during the June 29th School Committee meeting. As Marblehead Beacon reported last week, the evening also revealed that there is a surplus of several hundred thousand dollars or more remaining in the school budget from the recently concluded fiscal year. In addition, it quickly became apparent that there is significant disagreement between several members of the School Committee and Superintendent Buckey as to whether or not these or other funds should be used to reconsider cuts – including the elimination of the freshman sports program – that Buckey promised would be made if the override failed at the ballot box.
During his conversation with Marblehead Beacon, Ota expressed his concern about how the discrimination complaint had become public, given his understanding that such complaints are meant to remain confidential for the protection of both parties. “The only people who knew about this,” he said, “were Dr. Buckey and his lawyers and the past School Committee.”
Marblehead Beacon reached out to Baker with questions pertaining to whether he believed Ota would be able to discharge his duties effectively, and he replied, “I said what I had to say, in person, during Public Comment at SC meeting on Thursday evening and have no further comment.” We asked the same questions of former School Committee member Sarah Gold, but did not receive a response prior to publication. In response to our questions to Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer we received an automated email stating that he is away until July 10th. And as of the time of publication our questions to Buckey also had gone unanswered.
Editor’s note: Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She took a leave of absence from Marblehead Beacon during her campaign for School Committee and is recusing herself from any issues surrounding School Committee coverage.