Jim Lehane Blasts Superintendent
By: Alex Scofield
When James J. Lehane strolled into the library midway through Wednesday night’s school committee session, it was because he had heard enough.
The former Sandwich Community School director had been watching the beginning of the committee meeting at home on Sandwich Community Television, and now he was angry.
He said he drove to the meeting to save his reputation and that of the Sandwich Community School, which, he said, were both being besmirched repeatedly in his absence.
It began with an attempt to clarify the findings of a recent audit on Sandwich Community School expenses. Community School co-directors Audrey L. Senese and Donna M. Burns were present, as they were two weeks before. They were there to set the record straight on the perception that the Community School was taking money from the Sandwich K-12 school system.
Yes, Ms. Senese said, the Community School’s swimming pool is a money-losing venture—it was $129,000 in the red, according to the audit, which Ms. Senese did not dispute.
Money to cover this deficit, however, did not come from the school district funding. It came from the Community School’s revolving account.
“As a whole, the community school always takes care of its own expenses,” Ms. Senese said.
“We do operate in our own revolving account, and we want to make sure people do understand that,” Ms. Burns added. She believed some reaction may have been due to a misunderstanding of the idea of a revolving account.
“We never paid money out of the public school budget to operate the pool,” agreed Mary Ellen Johnson, schools superintendent.
Dr. Johnson later explained that she felt that the Community School used to take school funds away through facilities use—charging outside groups to use school facilities.
Ms. Burns said that when the Community School was launched in 1975, it was charged by the town with the responsibility for facilities use, until that duty was recently transferred to the K-12 school system.
“Clearly a different direction has been taken,” Ms. Burns said, “but we didn’t grab it somehow.”
But Dr. Johnson also said that in not charging the Community School for utilities, the K-12 school system continues to incur some of the Community School’s expenses.
“Indirectly, in some ways, we do still help support the community school,” she said.
Dr. Johnson complimented Ms. Senese and Ms. Burns on their management of the Community School, which she said had turned a corner, and was performing much better financially than it had in the past.
“I think indirectly…it was taking away from educational dollars,” Dr. Johnson said. “But that’s in the past.”
Enter Mr. Lehane, the blast from said past. Although his appearance was unscheduled, he was invited to take the microphone.
“I just want to be clear. The superintendent has said many times tonight, ‘That was in the past,’ ” Mr. Lehane said. “The suggestion was that the past was screwed up somehow.”
He said school committee members have always been aware that some of the Community School’s expenses were in the red, Mr. Lehane said. “Everybody knew that,” he added. “That was with the blessing of every single member.”
He went on to say that he was happy to see the current restructuring of the Community School, but objected to the suggestion that it was mismanaged in the past.
Mr. Lehane took issue with what Dr. Johnson said about the Community School, and said it insinuated that “somehow we were pulling the wool over people’s eyes and stealing money from the district.… I don’t want anyone in this town to have the slightest doubt that we were an open, honest organization.”
“Anyhow, that’s it. I’ll shut up,” Mr. Lehane concluded. “Sorry for my rant.”
After an hour or two bickering over Community School expenses, the committee’s de facto agenda segued into an hour or two of bickering over the school district’s budgetary timetable. As the meeting’s fourth hour approached (fifth if one counts the committee’s prior hour-long meeting with its superintendent search consultant), committee member Shaun P. Cahill said he had reached a point where he was unable to recall whether something had transpired 15 minutes ago or several hours ago.
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” he said with sarcasm.
Following Town Manager George H. Dunham’s presentation on the FY12 budget approved six nights before by the selectmen, Dr. Johnson moved to the end of the table to give a PowerPoint presentation on cost increases and needed reductions for the year.
Members Jessica A. Linehan, Marie A. Kangas, Nancy A. Crossman, and Chairman Sharron L. Marshall requested that Dr. Johnson provide drafts of the budget she was crafting, complete with specific line items.
“We have not seen the budget yet,” Ms. Crossman said. “We have very general numbers given to us, with no specifics behind them.… I need to see how those add up.”
“We’re working on it,” Dr. Johnson said. Less than a week after selectmen said that the schools would be getting $240,000 less from the town in the coming year, she said it was unrealistic to expect her to turn around a $30 million schools budget, draft-form or otherwise.
Dr. Johnson said she could provide a draft of her proposed budget by December 30. Ms. Marshall said that did not give committee members enough time to review budgetary specifics before the committee’s next scheduled meeting on January 5.
“I’ve had it. Good night,” Dr. Johnson said, crying, as she abruptly concluded her presentation and returned to her usual seat at the center of the table.
Even the motion to adjourn was protracted by several minutes of argument until 11 PM when, finally the meeting came to a close.
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