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By Erin Smith

MediaNews

CHELMSFORD — Three local school superintendents helped John B. Barranco funnel more than $5 million in taxpayer funds intended for special-needs students to his nonprofit, Chelmsford-based Merrimack Education Center, according to the state inspector general.

The superintendents who approved the money transfers — former Billerica Superintendent Robert Calabrese, former Tyngsboro Superintendent David Hawkins and former North Middlesex Regional School Superintendent James McCormick — were rewarded with six-figure jobs at MEC and extravagant bonuses, according to state Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan.

“The superintendents taking part in his scheme betrayed the trust of parents, students and taxpayers,” Sullivan said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

Barranco, who faces scrutiny from state Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office for possible pension fraud and embezzlement, simultaneously served as head of both MEC and the government-funded Merrimack Special Education Collaborative.

According to Sullivan, Barranco manipulated the two organizations’ payrolls to inflate his pension while doling out extravagant salaries and bonuses to himself, his former live-in girlfriend and friends.

Sullivan urged MEC and Barranco, a former superintendent for the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, to immediately return $11.5 million to the collaborative, where Barranco served as executive director from 1993 to August 2005. Barranco still serves as MEC’s executive director, a position he has held since 1993.

The collaborative served as a subordinate arm of MEC and agreements between the two organizations are “tainted by conflicts of interest,” according to Sullivan’s report.

On June 5, 2006, the collaborative convened an emergency board meeting to transfer $5.5 million to MEC to pay for rent, building improvements and administrative services provided to the collaborative, but Sullivan contends those expenses were fabricated.

The rushed meeting was organized by Mary Clisbee, Barranco’s long-term live-in girlfriend who served as executive director of the collaborative from 2005 until the couple broke up in 2007. Clisbee reportedly received bonus payments from MEC at Barranco’s discretion and received a bonus of nearly $140,000 in October 2006, according to Sullivan’s report.

Only five superintendents showed up out of the nine superintendents who routinely attended the collaborative’s board meetings, according to Sullivan’s reports.

The five served as board members for both the collaborative and MEC and unanimously approved the $5.5 million transfer, according to Sullivan’s office, which listed the attendants at the board meeting as Calabrese, Hawkins, McCormick, former Chelmsford Superintendent Richard Moser and former Stoneham Superintendent Joseph Connelly.

McCormick and Connelly’s districts were not legally voting members of the collaborative at the time, according to the inspector general’s office. McCormick and Calabrese, who Sullivan’s report described as Barranco’s longtime allies, retired as school superintendents just weeks after casting the votes.

Shortly after the vote, three board members received lucrative jobs working for MEC.

According to Sullivan’s reports:

* McCormick joined MEC’s staff in July 2006 with a $110,000 annual salary and received bonuses of $70,000, $83,511 and $85,529 in the three years that followed.

* Calabrese was hired as a part-time MEC employee in September 2006 with a $68,500 annual salary and bonuses of about $30,000 a year.

* When Hawkins retired as Tyngsboro’s superintendent in 2008, Barranco put him on the MEC payroll and Hawkins earned $150,000 as a member of the staff.

Calabrese, who served as Billerica’s superintendent for 22 years, died in June 2009 at the age of 63.

None of the three were available for comment last night.

Barranco was also not available for comment.

Nancy Sterling, of M.L. Strategies, LLC, said on behalf of MEC in an email, “There are numerous inaccuracies in the Inspector General’s report and the amount of the allegation is outrageous. We will address those factual errors in an appropriate forum.”

John Fletcher and Donna Goodell, co-directors of the collaborative, said in an interview at their 114 Turnpike Road, Chelmsford office yesterday, that they are cooperating fully with the state’s investigation into Barranco.

Judith Klimkiewicz, superintendent of Nashoba Valley Technical High School, said she’s only been board chairman for the collaborative since last year.

“I was shocked. I did not anticipate receiving the letter (from the inspector general). The only thing I knew through rumor mills is that they were investigating Mr. Barranco,” said Klimkiewicz.

“All I can tell you is I never got a dime and not one member of the board is getting a cent,” said Klimkiewicz. “I’ve only agreed to be the chairman since they’ve broken away from MEC. Anybody who’s on the board this year was never involved in this and never served on both boards.”

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