WOONSOCKET — In a rare move to handle a personnel action in public session, the School Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to terminate School Department Finance Director Stacey Busby after hearing a recommendation from School Superintendent Giovana Donoyan supporting the action.
The termination of Busby came after School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire-Forcier heard no motion from her peers for a move into closed session to consider the sole personnel matter on the evening's agenda.
In the absence of a motion for closed session, School Department Legal Council Richard R. Ackerman began to read the letter from Donoyan listing her reasons for seeking the business manager's termination.
Busby has been the focus of a public debate in recent weeks as to how she could have projected the school department would end the past fiscal year with a small surplus when in fact the department closed that 2010-2011 budget with a $2.7 million deficit. The concerns voiced by City Council members and some school officials over Busby's fiscal projections only grew louder when a mid-budget audit conducted by the city's auditing firm, Braver PC, projected the current school budget to be headed toward a $7.3 million deficit when it closes on June 30.
Busby was not present at Wednesday's meeting, but Ackerman indicated she had secured legal counsel to represent her. Busby was also reported not to have objected to public consideration of the panel's action. Busby still has the option of filing a legal appeal of the committee's move, according to Ackerman.
The termination of Busby came during an evening the School Committee also debated but ultimately rejected School Committeeman Christoper Roberts and Forcier' request that State Police Colonel Steven O'Donnell be asked to investigate the circumstances behind the School Department's deficit. The letter to be considered also asked O'Donnell to look at how Busby's contract was approved without a standard clause allowing termination with cause. Busby has a contract for her $90,000-a-year post running through June of 2013.
The panel would later vote down the investigation request in a 2-3 decision with members Vimala Phongsavanh, Eleanor Nadeau and John Donlon objecting to the request. The members said later that they felt the review to be unnecessary given a lack of evidence showing school funds had been misappropriated. They also voiced worries that the continuing focus on an underfunded and unrealistic school budget has drawn the panel away from considering issues important to the school district's children.
In her letter to Busby dated March 9, Donoyan stated Busby had been placed on administrative leave on Jan. 27 with pay while an investigation of charges of misfeasance and malfeasance in Busby's position was conducted.
The Superintendent stated she was now informing Busby that she was "hereby suspended without pay, and I will be recommending the termination of your employment as Director of Administration and Finance.
Donoyan's letter continued on to say Busby's duties and responsibilities included advising the superintendent on the status of the school budget, preparing budgets, submitting a monthly statement to the school committee detailing the status of each appropriation including budget forecasts and interpreting the financial position of the school system to the community-at-large.
"You have failed to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of your office as follows," Donoyan said while referencing five stated reasons for the termination.
"You have misrepresented the fiscal affairs of the Woonsocket Education Department to the substantial detriment of the Woonsocket school system and the people it serves," Donoyan wrote while outlining Busby's initial projection of the 2011 school year ending with a surplus of approximately $100,000 that year, a year that in fact ended with the $2.7 million deficit, according to Donoyan
"Your failure to recognize this discrepancy is unacceptable," Donoyan said.
The superintendent also referenced Busby's role in a legal action brought by the City against the School Department which resulted in the finance director and School Committee being directed by the court to "adopt and adhere to a balanced school budget for fiscal year 2011."
Busby was also directed to prepare a corrective action plan that limited spending to amounts "actually appropriated for fiscal year 2011 and otherwise complies with all statutory requirements."
Donoyan, who arrived in the district in September of 2011 after former Superintendent Robert Gerardi took a job in Massachusetts, said the amended budget resulting from the court action was based "upon your figures and your forecasts," Donoyan said. Rather than “limiting spending to the amounts actually appropriated, as depicted in your amended budgets, the education department actually spent substantially more money than was appropriated,” Donoyan wrote.
“Throughout the first half of fiscal year 2012 you assured the superintendent and school committee that the 2012 budget was balanced, that is, spending for the fiscal year would be limited to the amounts actually appropriated. You were incorrect again,” Donoyan said. “The projected deficit for the fiscal year 2012 is $7.3 million. Your failure to recognize this gross disparity between the expenditures and revenues is obviously unacceptable,” the letter stated.
Donoyan said the city was subsequently required to pay for an independent review of the books and records of the education department that after many weeks of review found that “rather than having sufficient revenues to cover expenses for the balance of fiscal year 2012 (ending June 30), the Woonsocket Education Department will likely run out of money in approximately one month, or three months before the expiration of the current fiscal year,” Donoyan wrote in her recommendation.
“As a result there is little if any latitude to cut expenses or seek increases in revenue to avoid a collapse of the school system or bankruptcy for the city,” Donoyan stated.
The superintendent also pointed to Busby's estimate that a reduction of kindergarten classes to half-day would save money as also incorrect. The department did not save the money projected by Busby under the change for Fiscal 2011, a factor contributing to the deficit that year.
Busby was also required under her position to file specific financial reports and statistical data in preparation of the fiscal budget, filings Donoyan said Busby did not complete for six different reports to the IRS, the State of Rhode Island, the City of Woonsocket, and others.
And, finally, Donoyan pointed out that the school department had never agreed to the $12,000 fee Busby's job search agency required as part of her hiring and noted department was to have been repaid the sum by Busby after she was a hired. A repayment arrangement with the school department was to be set up, according to Donoyan. “You never arranged for the repayment and to this date you remain indebted to the department for the full amount of $12,000,” Donoyan said.
“Each of the separate items described above is sufficient cause to terminate your employment. Collectively, they amply demonstrate your failure and inability to perform the duties of your office,” Donoyan noted.
The letter concluded with Donoyan notifying Busby that the School Committee would consider her termination on Wednesday and stating the options for it to be heard in open or closed session and her rights to legal counsel and a formal hearing.
Before the committee's vote, Ackerman asked Donoyan several questions about Busby's assertions that a small surplus would be realized in 2011 and her projection, as that budget ended, that a surplus in the range of $400,000 could be expected. He also reviewed Busby's later assurances to Donoyan about the 2012 budget and her indications that “everything would be OK.” Ackerman concluded by noting the repayment of the $12,000 awarded to Busby's employment agency remains outstanding.
The members of the School Committee subsequently voted unanimously and without further comment to approve Donoyan's recommendation.