WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Aug. 11 decided to seek a joint meeting with the School Committee and district officials on the school budget assessment issue within the Regional Agreement.
Selectman Randy LaMattina suggested the discussion in open session, as it had been discussed that way by the School Coommittee, on Thursday, Aug. 6 — as well as on Facebook. The School Committee had voted 7-3 to table the issue.
“Obviously, this is something that has drastically affected our two towns,” LaMattina said. “Over the last six or seven months now, we’ve talked about partnership.”
He said the last budget process was part of the effort to try to preserve that partnership, and he was seeking a sense of the board’s opinion on the “obvious issue” that will hang over the partnership between two towns and school district until it is properly addressed.
The issue he takes up now, LaMattina said, is that through documents uncovered by Assistant Town Administator Lisa Green over the last couple of years, and a statement from a recent Regional Agreement committee illustrates that nothing points to actual malfeasance.
“Why [the assessment issue] was never discovered? I don’t know,” he said. “The talking point has been, ‘We never knew.’ I thoroughly disagree with that statement that somebody did not know. … Unfortunately we didn’t know about this and, when I say we, I mean the towns of Whitman and Hanson.”
LaMattina noted School Committee member Fred Small asked for a third-party investigation, including the Whitman and Hanson Select Boards. He concurred, not out of a goal of seeking financial retribution, LaMattina said, but to obtain a proper explanation to the towns and accountability to the taxpayers.
“One member of the School Committee made some statements [Aug. 6] as if current sitting Selectmen had covered this up,” LaMattina said. “I think that is an aggregious statement. I think this board has been at the forefront of trying to find an answer to this.”
The School Committee on Thursday, Aug. 6 discussed the issue toward the end of a lengthy meeting centering on the school reopening plan.
Small had moved that Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak be empowered to collaborate with the two Select Boards and the District’s legal counsel and town counsels, if needed, to “contact and work with the appropriate investigative authority … in order to determine if there was any impropriety or malfeasance concerning the methodology of the Regional School’s assessment over the past several years.”
School Committee member Dawn Byers asked if he had a time period in mind, to which Small suggested perhaps 2013 forward.
“What I’m hoping to accomplish here is we would have a third party that would be looking into the assessment situation and we can finally be able to get an unbiased assessment of what had occurred, be able to decide where we go from there, and close the door and move on.”
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes noted that, as of the Aug. 6 meeting no others had been contacted about the motion.
School Committee member Christopher Howard suggested a third party, perhaps a law firm “with nothing to do with this” be hired to look into it.
He said it should not be limited to the state and suggested it might not be the best course of action to have the state do that.
“I think it requires some additional thought,” Howard said.
Hayes suggested the motion be amended to require the boards turn over all pertinent documents to any investigators who might be looking into the issue, rather than empowering the superintendent.
“I consider our superintendent to be an unbiased third party, because whatever happened, happened before the current administration,” Small said.
School Committee member David Forth said he would not consider any party involved in the issue to be completely unbiased.
“I think we should take more time with this,” he said, suggesting another meeting in which the committee could focus on it more and obtain more documentation. He also said any decision to investigate should come as a formal vote.
School Committee member Christopher Scriven agreed with Forth and Howard, questioning the ultimate objective, which Small said was closure.
Forth, who said he has already made inquiries with the state inspector general and the Attorney General’s office about how such a probe would move forward, asked if the Committee would be able to move forward if “the people who caused the problem are continuing to be part of a future discussion, whatever that may be.”
He argued that the there has been so much focus on COVID-19 that, there hasn’t been enough time to look into the assessment issue. New member Hillary Kniffen argued that, now that a budget has been approved, it is time to move forward.
Scriven agreed that the issue can’t be passed over in the hope the issue would just go away.
“I just think the divisiveness is not going to lead to good,” she said.
School Committee member Dan Cullity said the investigation would not be about budget or which methodology was used, but about what happened along the way “either deceiving, hiding, doing whatever” in the past.
“We can’t go back and fix any of that,” Cullity said. “You have to find your history to make sure you don’t repeat it.”
Howard leaned toward a discussion in executive session before sharing the information with the public, while Forth favored an open session for that discussion.
“When we’re done, we owe it to the public to have everything transparent,” Howard said. “I just don’t know how to get everything out on the table publically without there being legal ramifications, which is our responsibility to understand.”
LaMattina on Aug. 11 called for a public meeting in which the issue is aired out and a third-party investigation is possibly authorized.
Selectman Brian Bezanson agreed, also arguing — like Small at the School Committee meeting — that both towns need closure.
“We owe it the taxpayers to find out what happened and to remedy it so it can’t happen again,” Bezanson said. “Was it a mistake? Was it incompetence and then a cover-up? Who knows?
He said an investigation by the state inspector general or other independent agency to determine why Whitman paid $4 million more than they should have.
Selectman Dan Salvucci agreed, but was concerned if they were going over the School Committee’s heads. Selectman Justin Evans expressed concern about it turning into a proxy fight, preferring to see all three boards come together in a public meeting.
“We have 10 [School Committee] officials,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski. “It’s their issue. So I have some hesitancy to take the ball and run with it.”
He said things he would like to see, but are not likely to, are the schools admitting the error and Hanson to admit Whitman carried them all those years.
“Maybe that’s what we’re looking to get,” LaMattina said. “We’re looking to say, ‘You wronged us,’ and through that have accountability.”
That accountability can ultimately rebuild the partnership, he said.
In other business, Whitman Selectmen on Aug. 11 reviewed Lynam’s job description and the process for hiring a new Town Administrator as he prepares to retire.
If the town opts to go with a search committee, he strongly suggested the board keep it small, with two Selectmen, another town official — he recommended the treasurer-collector — the assistant superintendent of schools and a citizen at-large or two. If the board does not want to use a committee, someone is going to have to coordinate with Paradigm, the search contractor on developing candidates, Lynam said.
LaMattina said the board is strong enough to make that decision, and that is the kind of work they were elected to do. He envisioned that the company would supply the board with three-to-five candidates to interview.
“We’re the people that are dealing with it constantly, and I don’t remember being asked to be on the search committee for the superintendent,” he said. Bezanson and Salvucci agreed.
Lynam said he believes Selectmen are fully capable of making the decision without a committee, if that is the direction in which they want to go.
The board decided to have the consultant narrow the applicants to a final group of the best three-to-five for them to interview. Lynam said it could take up to the end of September. While he used October as a target date for retirement, he would consider staying on until the search is concuded.