Harvard school board chair presses superintendent on salary spending

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HARVARD – There were some tense moments Monday night when Harvard School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson was pressed on why he strayed from School Committee policy by spending $28,000 more than the committee-budgeted $50,000 for a Bromfield media specialist.

Jefferson reported that he’d targeted $50,051 in salary savings over the current fiscal 2011 budget among 16 posts being filled.

One “fairly substantial” savings Jefferson noted was that the Hildreth Elementary School principal’s post will be filled for $46,000 on an interim basis instead of the $110,635 budgeted before prior principal Mary Beth Banios left July 1. The net savings there is $64,635, Jefferson said.

“No, Tom, I’ll stop you right there,” said Chairman Keith Cheveralls.

Cheveralls wished to first focus on why Jefferson used $22,000 in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment stimulus funds to augment the $50,269 budgeted for the Bromfield media specialist post, filled by Barbara Shea.

“We built this budget line-item by line item. I even challenged you as to whether $50,000 was enough for Bromfield and you clearly said it was,” said Cheveralls. “How can we be so wrong? And then we’ll talk about where you got the approval to do that.”

“Well, I was able to supplement it,” said Jefferson.

“No. There’s a clear policy that we’d discussed five times at our table. Where did you get the approval for the line item transfer?” asked Cheveralls.

“I didn’t,” said Jefferson.

“I think that the mandate that we gave Tom is to find somebody good for this position,” said committee member Virginia Justicz.

Committee member Patricia Wenger said “my issue here is the communication aspect of it.”

“That’s my entire point,” said Cheveralls.

“There’s a significant difference there. Probably given the information, I probably would still be very supportive of it. I’d just like to know ahead of time,” said Wenger.

“What is a media specialist getting? Why are we paying $80,000 when someone was doing a fabulous job at $50,000?” Wenger asked.

Jefferson said contractually new hires are credited for experience they bring to the job. “We can cap the position and that’s something we can look at a policy level. ”

“We’re getting into administrative decisions,” said Justicz. “I don’t think it’s the School Committee’s role to come in and say that’s not the right hire.”

“So we give him a bucket of $18 million bucks and ask him to review it with us on a monthly basis or a quarterly basis?” asked Cheveralls.

“Do we approve every single time?” asked Justicz.

“I think of that magnitude, I’d say, absolutely,” Cheveralls said.

Cheveralls read aloud from the preamble of the School Department’s annual Town Meeting materials, which explains that the budget review would provide “significant detail on a line-by-line basis… so the community can understand how the budget is spent. That’s what I stood up and told the voters. When we get variances of this magnitude, I’d like to know before.”

“No one has a crystal ball to know who’s going to walk through the doors and apply for these positions,” said Justicz.

Committee member Piali De was upset to learn of the recent departure of elementary-school media specialist Peggy Harvey, who left for a similar post in Boxborough. De was also unhappy with Jefferson’s spending.

“The issue is here that we just committed ourselves,” said De. “I have less issues moving things within the budget (but) we added $27,000 for the library media specialist that we’re going to carry year in and year out.”

“If there’s a specific dollar amount that the committee wants me to report back on, I will,” said Jefferson. “I was working under the assumption to bring the total salary budget in-line. I’d be happy to break it down.”

Cheveralls noted the similar job descriptions for the Bromfield and Hildreth media specialists but noted the Bromfield job will pay $78,000 while Jefferson projects a less costly elementary school replacement for $41,783 instead of the $48,300 now budgeted.

“So what makes us think we’ll fill Hildreth for $6,000 less?” said Cheveralls. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Jefferson answered that there may be a less expensive, one-year, in-house hiring route. Also, he prioritized the Bromfield hire as the school prepares for its routine New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) high-school accreditation inspections.

“There’s a different gun to our head than we have at Bromfield,” said Jefferson. “We don’t have that same challenge at HES.”

“… and we lost her.” said De, referring to the loss of Peggy Harvey at the elementary-school library. “We allocate resources as policy makers,” said Cheveralls.

“There’s a significant shift in investment here between the elementary school and the Bromfield School. We’ve moved $14,000 out of HES and put that into the Bromfield School, for one.”

“My point is when we’ve spent hours fighting over where we want to put our money, line after painful line, and come to an agreement after heated discussion, to see these kind of variances without any thought of communicating to the chair or any other member of the school committee?” said Cheveralls.

“Tom, what is it you need from us to know you need to communicate with this board?” asked Cheveralls.

“My understanding over (the last) five years is to bring the salary line in place. Give me an amount of money that triggers this talk (and) if we want to establish a policy that this position is ‘x’ dollars more,” asked Jefferson.

“What of the policy you put in place in 2006 that line items must be put forward before they’re increased?” Cheveralls said.

“This isn’t line items; this is salary,” Jefferson said.

Justicz suggested the issue be the “first order of business for the budget subcommittee” to “hammer out” a solution.

“I try and be creative and resourceful. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to bring in balanced budgets. We’ve not requested any transfers of funds from the Finance Committee. We do try to bring people in at the lowest cost but also try to bring the right people in,” said Jefferson.

“So when you gave us the resumes a month ago, maybe at that point you could have talked about the salaries and why they were worth more money,” added Wenger.

“I keep going back. I have to trust you with the budget. You guys do a great job with it. That I don’t have an issue with. But for us to understand what’s going on helps us support you and the administration. That’s where I’m coming from,” said Wenger.

Jefferson called for a budgeting benchmark or tool that would trigger a committee alert. “That tool is a telephone,” Cheveralls said. “Pick it up and talk to us. How long have you known about this variance? ” he said.

“About a month or so,” said Jefferson.

De turned her attention to the $15,773 amount to be paid over the $69,426 budgeted for a secondary special-education coordinator. The post has been filled by Catherine Polis, who will be paid $85,199.

“Do we have a job description for the secondary SPED coordinator? I’m having a hard time thinking we’re spending all at the highest levels of salary. This is all eating away from instructional funding and I’m stressing over it,” said De.

“That position is something that came out of recommendations of the state SPED program review,” said Jefferson.

“They were pleased we were budgeting a Bromfield post like we had at HES. That was a reason for many issues in the 2005 midcycle review.”

“Does that give us $85,000 in value?” asked Cheveralls.

“We can change it year to year,” Jefferson answered.

“And that’s easy to do? Eliminating positions? The time to do that is before we put people in positions,” said Cheveralls.

Cheveralls then circled back to question the $64,000 in savings Jefferson noted by the hiring of an interim elementary school principal for $46,000 instead of the $110,635 budgeted.

“It creates the perception of a $50,000 surplus but we’re essentially embedding a problem for 2012,” said Cheveralls, when the permanent HES principal hire is made at the full salary.

“We’ll have a one-time savings this year,” said Cheveralls.

“We’ll have other one-time savings next year,” said Justicz.

“It’s not intended to paint a rosy picture,” said Jefferson.

De wondered if there needed to be a special committee meeting to discuss the elementary-school media post but Jefferson said time doesn’t permit. The teachers contract for the fast approaching school year calls for preparation periods for teachers that intersect with the media specialist post.

“I think we keep sticking our fingers in this dike. Living vicariously from day to day,” said De.