WOONSOCKET — The School Committee appears headed toward another difficult session on Wednesday, this time for an expected debate on whether to seek a State Police investigation into its budgeting errors and a reported language lapse in a school department employment contract.
The request for an investigative review is contained in a letter to State Police Col. Steven G. O'Donnell that School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier and School Committeeman Christopher M. Roberts have placed on the agenda for the panel's meeting at the Hamlet Avenue Middle School beginning at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
Roberts said on Sunday he and McGuire-Forcier prepared the request in an effort to gain State Police help “in determining if the state's General Laws have been violated.”
While not listing specific employees of the School Department, the measure does imply that the panel is seeking assistance to determine if the School Department's past administration under School Superintendent Robert Gerardi allowed overspending to occur that in turn caused a $2.7 million deficit incurred by the department last year, and the projected $7.3 million deficit in the school department's current budget.
Records from past school department meetings are reported to indicate that School Department Business Manager Stacey Busby told Gerardi the hiring of certain school positions would exceed budgeted allotments and Gerardi was reported to have consented to the overspending, according to Roberts.
Gerardi later left the district for a job in Massachusetts but Roberts said he hopes the involvement of the State Police would allow a full review of the matter even with Gerardi's absence.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine has also been critical of Gerardi's handling of the deficit and had indicated earlier he planned to request that the Rhode Island Department of Education revoke his certification as a Rhode Island Superintendent of Schools.
In the proposed letter to O'Donnell, the committee would state that “as we cope with a recently discovered deficit, what is most troubling is questions remain as to whether or not the Woonsocket School Committee was being provided with the full and accurate financial condition of the District, or if important data was being manipulated and/or falsely presented.”
It goes on to relate the panel members' concern resulting from the initial review of the minutes and audio of official and public meetings of the panel.
“As you can see below (a reference to state law 16-38-9 Liability of School Officers for misconduct) there is a liability for school officers who engage in misconduct. If there was a misappropriation of Federal, State, and City funds based on ‘false certificates,’ there should be swift and appropriate action as outlined in the law,” the proposed School Committee letter states.
Fontaine has also asked his special legal counsel, Joseph Larisa of East Providence to look into the terms of Busby's employment contract and the fact that it lacks a routinely-included clause for termination with cause.
Busby, who has been out on paid administrative leave in the aftermath of the current deficit being announced, has a contract for her $90,000-a-year post running through June 30 of 2013.
Roberts said his proposed letter to the State Police also seeks help in determining if the termination clause was dropped from Busby's contract, or the document altered, after it had been signed and put into effect by then School Committee Chairman Marc Dubois, now a member of the City Council.
“If someone changed the contract after it was signed by the Chairman of the School Committee, that is illegal and we need to find that out,” Roberts said.
The proposed letter concluded that if either of the two requested points of investigation prove to be true “they represent illegal behavior and a violation of the public trust by appointed school officials. The truth must be discovered, and in the event of any illegal behavior, those responsible must be brought to justice. Your investigative experience and ability to subpoena (if necessary) are tools not at our disposal alone,” the letter states.
What will come of the request remains to be seen. Roberts said Sunday that he is looking for full support from the panel in seeking the investigation. The move comes as local residents will get the chance to air their feelings on a proposed $4.3 million supplemental tax that the City Council is considering as a partial solution to the school deficit. The hearing will be held Monday in the Hamlet Middle School. The council would need to approve the measure for it to then go before the General Assembly for authorization as a property tax cap override.
It remains unclear if the measure would even be approved by the council given the statements of some members suggesting they would prefer the city to fall into bankruptcy rather than raise taxes again for already distressed local property owners.
The School Department's unresolved deficit may actually be leading the city in that direction as it continues to be discussed rather than corrected. School department vendors for special needs students reportedly remain unpaid despite the identification and announcement of the deficit and school administration has not yet been given an early payment of state aid promised by state officials as a temporary stop gap to the budget shortfall.
School Committee Vice Chairwoman Vimala Phongsavanh said she was thinking about the school department's deepening fiscal crisis and what steps could be taken to alleviate it on Sunday more than she was contemplating legal action against a past school administration.
“I don't think there has been misspending. I think we are just running out of cash,” Phongsavanh said. “The budget we approved last year was an unrealistic budget and that is where we are right now,” she said.
Her very real fear is that “our education department is exploding right now and we lack the funding to do what we were doing even a year ago,” Phongsavanh said.
What the School Committee needs to consider, is to “reform the way we do things and try to find some additional revenue,” she said.
The committee will also consider a proposal on Wednesday to cut lunch monitors at all schools for a savings of approximately $185,000 but Phongsavanh said even that type of a cut may not be acceptable given the impact on students.
The monitors help keep order in school cafeterias at lunchtime and are particularly helpful in maintaining a safe environment for students at the middle school and high school level, according to Phongsavanh.
“It's a small piece of our budget but it benefits us more than it hurts us,” she said.