WOONSOCKET — On paid leave from her $90,000 a year job since January, School Department Business Manager Stacey Busby has been quietly stripped of her salary.
School Department sources familiar with Busby’s employment status say she was informed in a letter last week that she is no longer being paid, though she remains on leave. Busby was also advised that her employment status will be the subject of a closed-door hearing before the School Committee, tentatively scheduled for March 21.
Since officials announced last week that an independent audit had uncovered a $10 million deficit on the school department’s books, exposing the city to the risk of bankruptcy, there has been a growing clamor for accountability.
Busby has come under particular fire from city officials because, just weeks after she announced last fall that the school department was on track to finish fiscal 2011 with a modest surplus, she disclosed that she realized there would be a deficit. The audited figure later turned out to be $2.7 million, a surprise prompting further inquiry by State Revenue Director Rosemary Booth Gallogly, independent auditors and city officials, resulting in the discovery of the gaping, $10 million budget chasm.
As City Councilman Marc Dubois, who was chairman of the School Committee at the time of Busby’s off-base budget forecast, Busby “...should be fired. She outright lied to the School Committee all along.”
But the fallout may not be limited to Busby. While Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said he has no power to do so himself, he said he intends to ask the School Committee to petition the Rhode Island Department of Education to revoke the certification of former Schools Supt. Robert Gerardi, a move that would bar him from becoming a superintendent in Rhode Island. He said he also wants school officials to press for similar sanctions against Busby.
Some officials have said Gerardi hired more people than he should have during fiscal year 2011, helping fuel the shortfall.
With the School Department, and the city, in such desperate fiscal straits, some officials, like Councilman Roger G. Jalette Sr., have wondered why school officials have not acted against Busby sooner.
Part of the answer may lie in Busby’s three-year employment contract, which does not expire until June 30, 2013, according to copies of the document obtained by The Call.
The contract is a renewal of the original pact she signed with Gerardi and Dubois, effective May 13, 2009 through June 30, 2010. That pact contact a provision that says, “Employee may be terminated for cause, including, but not limited to, failure to comply with any provision of this contract or inability to perform the duties” required of the job.
When the three-year renewal was signed, also by Gerardi and Dubois, that provision of the agreement somehow vanished. There is no provision spelling out any reason whatsoever for which Busby may be terminated. There is an empty spot in the contract where it would appear the boilerplate language of the earlier pact used to appear, except the termination clause has been replaced with the word, “eliminated.”
The only leverage regarding termination in the pact belongs to Busby, who has the power to sever the contract “for any reason” by giving her boss at least 60 days advance notice of her intentions.
Officials were worried that the contract is so legally ironclad that some have privately voiced concerns that they might be forced to buy out Busby’s remaining time, which amounts to over a year’s salary, in order to release Busby. Sources who released the latest information on Busby’s employment status, who did not want to be identified, said the reluctance to provide public details has also been rooted in fears of a legal backlash over privacy and personnel issues.
But the mayor confirmed last week that he has asked lawyer Joseph Larisa to take a second look at Busby’s contract. Fontaine said there are new questions about whether it is valid because it may not square with approved School Department policy P2-3.1, which governs contracts. The policy says, in part, that “No original contract...or renewal thereof, shall be binding upon the Woonsocket School Committee unless first presented to the committee for its review and approval at a regularly scheduled meeting. The School Committee members will have a copy of the contract prior to the meeting in enough time to review it.”
Anita McGuire Forcier, chairwoman of the school committee, has already said those policy benchmarks were not satisfied in regard to Busby’s contract. She also said last week that Richard Ackerman, the school department’s legal counsel, has asserted he was unaware of the contract and would not have recommended that it be signed had he known the termination clause has been deleted. And Dubois has also said he didn’t know about the deletion before he signed the pact.
The minutes of School Committee meetings indicate that Busby’s renewal pact, like others, was developed by a “contracts subcommittee” of the of the panel. At the time, that group consisted of School Committeewoman Eleanor Nadeau and former School Committeewoman Linda Majewski.
“We have a good team and I am very proud of them,” Nadeau was quoted in the minutes of an Aug. 11, 2010 School Committee, when commenting on contract renewals for Gerardi, Busby and others.
Majewski said the original plan was to give them only one-year contracts. Citing “the exemplary work people like Mrs. Busby have done, it was hard to not give more that that,” Majewski is quoted as saying during the same meeting.
Busby could not be reached for comment.