By Erin Smith
CHELMSFORD — Local superintendents who oversee a special-education collaborative hit with allegations of mismanagement are hastily looking for an interim director as they wait in hopes that the state will take over the agency by month’s end.
Co-executive directors Donna Goodell and John Fletcher are no longer running the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative. It’s unclear if they are still being paid by the organization and the collaborative’s attorney, Thomas Lent, would not comment on the matter.
Goodell and Fletcher, who have been in charge of the collaborative since 2007, did not comment when approached by a reporter yesterday.
Tewksbury Superintendent of Schools John O’Connor, having reviewed a draft audit of the collaborative, said a state takeover is the best option.
“What are you waiting for?” O’Connor asked Jeff Wulfson, associate commissioner for school finance and district support for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, during yesterday’s board meeting, which Goodell and Fletcher also attended. “We need immediate help, and asked for it.”
The state auditor has completed a draft of the collaborative audit, which shows “serious deficiencies” in management, accountability and transparency. The audit will not be released in full until it is final.
Multiple state agencies and federal prosecutors are investigating the collaborative and the related nonprofit Merrimack Education Center.
John Barranco, the former head of MSEC and the director of MEC, is accused of fraudulently redirecting at least $11.5 million for personal or questionable uses. He is on unpaid leave from MEC.
No one has been charged with a crime.
Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state Department of Education, just received the draft audit on the collaborative and is weighing options, Wulfson said yesterday.
A receivership could take the form of special legislation, a court order obtained by the Attorney General’s Office, or a written agreement between the Department of Education and the collaborative board, Wulfson said. State Auditor Suzanne Bump has urged Chester to put the collaborative in a receivership.
In the meantime the board voted yesterday to authorize board Chairwoman Judith Klimkiewicz, superintendent of Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, to sign off on all payroll and spending accounts for the collaborative. The board also voted to authorize a four-member subcommittee to hire a director, treasurer and business manager to oversee payroll and create job descriptions for those positions. The subcommittee’s other members are Westford Superintendent Everett “Bill” Olsen, Chelmsford Superintendent Frank Tiano, and Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School Superintendent William DeRosa.
The collaborative’s treasurer, James Anderson, left last month after the board decided to terminate his contract, according to Lent. Klimkiewicz said the move was motivated by a reorganization plan and not wrongdoing. MEC still handles the payroll and human-resources operations for the collaborative, but the collaborative stopped paying for those services after the allegations against Barranco and his associates came to light, according to Lent.
State education officials have urged the board to make it a priority to cut ties with MEC and handle administrative functions internally, but that could prove difficult. The collaborative uses Internet services run by MEC and rents buildings from MEC, which owns property the collaborative uses on Brick Kiln Road and at 114 Turnpike Road in Chelmsford and at 40 Linnell Circle in Billerica, according to deeds records.
Maureen Marshall, superintendent of the North Middlesex Regional School District in Townsend, suggested during yesterday’s meeting that the board consider dissolving the collaborative. Marshall said the board has an obligation to the 500 special-needs students it serves, but said the collaborative might not be the best option anymore.
“At a point you say, cut your losses, dissolve it, and start over,” Marshall said.
Wulfson cautioned against dissolving the collaborative, saying it is important to create stability for students. He said shutting the organization would not end the liability for its 10 member school districts. He said Chester is not considering that option in the short term.
The superintendents are under pressure to clean up the problems at the collaborative after the Nashoba Tech School Committee voted conditionally this week to end its membership with the collaborative when the contract with the agency expires on June 30, 2012. Klimkiewicz said it shouldn’t affect any students because Nashoba has never sent any students to the collaborative.
Klimkiewicz sought to allay the anxiety of parents and students served by the collaborative, pledging to preserve special-education services.
“These are the neediest students,” she said. “These are the students that have nowhere else to go.”