Ignoring pleas for forgiveness from the chairman of the Board of Education, the Representative Town Meeting on Monday rejected a request for a budget transfer of $87,279 to cover unauthorized cost overruns for the expansion of the North Mianus School parking lot.
The project, which was completed last year, was budgeted at $700,000, but the discovery of a failing sewer line and a miscalculation of how much pipe was needed for a storm drain caused it to run into the red.
Although no one has questioned the validity of the cost overrun, the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sidney Freund found themselves in hot water after it was discovered that they knew about it in April and, instead of notifying the appropriate town boards, namely the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the RTM, went ahead and paid for it out of the Board of Education’s 2010-2011 operating budget without approval.
“The paper processing failed, the result of which was that work was authorized for which no money had been appropriated,” said Robert Brady, chairman of the RTM Education Committee, in explaining what happened. “That is a violation of our charter, and, according to town counsel, several state statutes — bottom line is, we broke the law.”
The matter came to light in April when a contractor for the project contacted First Selectman Peter Tesei asking why he had not been paid. This resulted in a review and, apparently in an effort to expedite the payment, the school board erroneously ended up paying the contractor out of the current operating budget without first getting the required approvals.
“That is not allowed, under town charter, and that is a problem,” Brady said, adding that the Board of Education went to the BET in May and requested a transfer to cover the funds in the current budget, “and that is what is before us now.”
“The Education Committee recommends not approving this,” Brady said, adding that committee members voted 1-7-3 to reject the request. This despite a promise from the school board that “procedures are in place now to prevent a change order from being approved without proper funding.”
Members of the RTM’s Finance Committee also voted against the request, 2-8-2. That committee also recommended that the RTM reject the request and tell the Board of Education to “find the funds in its current operating budget.”
Steven Anderson, Board of Education chairman, admitted to the error and asked the RTM for forgiveness.
“We made a mistake. We messed up the process,” Anderson said with Freund at his side. He said the error occurred due to a “series of issues and missteps” in the process.
“No one is questioning the validity of the overages,” he said. “All agree that they were necessary to finish the project. It’s the fact that we messed up on our internal controls … we messed up on how we thought we were supposed to correct the issue when it came to our attention in April.”
“There have been some appropriately strong words about this issue,” Anderson continued. “We were taken to the woodshed at the May BET budget committee meeting, we were taken to the woodshed during the May BET meeting, and we will be taken to the woodshed tonight. And it is deserved. However, while this was not handled correctly there was zero ill intent as to any of this, nor was any effort to hide anything or delay notification. I take umbrage when people attempt to link this miscue to some greater conspiracy – such as MISA, the budget vote, the superintendent resignation or some other political issue.”
Anderson said he’s confident that the error will not reoccur, as the school board has “instituted procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”
“As a Board of Ed member, I’ve stood in front of you six years now,” Anderson said, addressing the 230-member legislative body. “Collectively we’ve worked through approximately $700 million worth of operating budgets, and about $60 million worth of regular capital budget needs. Our budgets have come in under BET guidelines and we have regularly returned unused money to the town. We’re not just spending the money because we have it. In six years, I’ve never had to stand here and apologize to you – but tonight I do. We understand that this $87,000 black mark hurts our reputation as good fiscal stewards of our school system. And we need to regain that reputation quickly. We are truly sorry for this situation – and we are confident that we have corrected the issue going forward.”
Despite Anderson’s plea for forgiveness, the RTM voted 82-96, with 16 abstentions, thus rejecting the request for the budget transfer.
The controversy comes on the heels of last month's surprise resignation of Freund and finger pointing between factions of the school board over what led to his departure.
The Board of Education must now return to the BET to resolve the matter and pay the contractor, Fred Durante Jr.