HARVARD — Before an article to censure the School Committee passed at the Oct. 10 Special Town Meeting, cases were made for and against it via prepared statements from School Committee Vice Chairman Will Verbits and citizen’s petition organizer Ron Ricci.
Verbits read a three-page statement introduced at the Oct. 9 School Committee meeting. In it, he cites a recent press release from the Worcester County district attorney’s office that said it has closed its investigation with a determination of “no finding.” The office has turned the matter over to the State Ethics Commission.
Those accused of “wrongdoing” were delighted, but not surprised, at the news, he said.
The agency investigated allegations that special education funds were improperly paid to a former committee member as reimbursement for private school tuition. In his view, said Verbits, committee members and the administration have been cleared.
Chairman Willie Wickman, in an earlier e-mail, said she shares that view.
“This should put to rest any thoughts of criminal wrongdoing,” the e-mail reads. “I am hopeful that citizens will be patient and await a ruling from the Ethics Commission. Let due process take its course, and in the meantime, let the School Committee and the superintendent continue their work ”
Verbits’ statement, on behalf of the committee, addressed each point in the censure article. First, the committee was “criticized” for prematurely extending Superintendent of Schools Thomas Jefferson’s contract while investigations were ongoing.
“As a committee, we are compelled to act based on facts we have before us,” said Verbits.
The committee hadn’t received word about the investigation from a state agency, he said.
“If the School Committee is informed of any actions considered illegal, we will respond ” he said.
As for Jefferson’s positive performance review, Verbits said the committee takes its responsibility to evaluate the superintendent “very seriously” as a requirement of the Educational Reform Act of 1993. He said the established evaluation process includes prioritized goals in key areas such as educational leadership, budget and finance, community relations, facility management and long-range planning.
The current superintendent “inherited several issues” when he took over in July 2005, said Verbits. Then the district faced financial sanctions from the state Department of Education for special education noncompliance, the Board of Health was about to shut down the kindergarten wing due to air quality issues, and The Bromfield School building project still had a “significant” to-do list.
In addition, the two school principals had resigned, the budget was in deficit and upcoming teacher contract negotiations promised to be problematic, he said, given the health insurance issue that turned out to be a major sticking point.
“A leader doesn’t get to pick the problems he or she chooses to address,” said Verbits.
On the plus side, he said, Jefferson inherited an “excellent faculty and high student performance” and showed educational leadership by building on those points.
Other points in the superintendent’s favor, he said, include a comprehensive revision of the budget process, leading the staff through a tough year, and keeping student clubs and activities alive despite a “work-to-rule” action by the teachers’ association. Verbits also credited Jefferson with improved daily communication and emergency response procedures.
“With the (teachers’) contract settled, the school system is moving forward ” he said.
The committee didn’t intend to “appear dismissive” in its response to the auditor’s report, he said. It took its observations and recommendations “under advisement.”
Those items will be reviewed in light of any new information, he said, along with input from the Special Education Task Force and the DOE’s comprehensive program review.
“In closing, the committee invites citizens to bring questions, concerns or recommendations to the superintendent or to us personally,” he said. “We open the floor to public commentary at our regularly scheduled meetings and follow up on any communication brought to us on topics within our scope of responsibility.”