Open Letter to the AB Regional School Committee

Dear Chairwoman Rychlik and the A-B Regional School Committee:

As you may know, Acton Forum is a community website that offers news and commentary on local Acton issues. Our website is located at http://www.ActonForum.com.

Recently we have been following a School-related issue, the departure of a top administrator, the former Director of Pupil Services. The School has continued to pay her full salary since her departure although she apparently no longer performs any duties. We calculate that the School has paid about 10 months of salary and benefits after the administrator appears to have left her position, which we believe was in September of 2014. This amounts to over $100,000. We can find no documentation or school policy which would allow such payments to be made, and the School administration has refused to answer our questions (even of a very general or basic nature) to explain or clarify this situation.

This appears on its face to be an example of wasteful spending.

Transparency, especially in the area of public spending, is necessary for a democracy to work. The residents of Acton and Boxborough have a burdensome property tax bill which pays for the very large School budget. They have a right to know if their tax dollars are being spent judiciously and if public policies of the School Committee are being evenly enforced.

Having received little or no response to our questions from the School administration, Acton Forum had to make repeated public document requests to the School. Had our questions been answered promptly, most of these requests would have been avoided. Our main request was in February, 2015, which was for emails and documents related to this administrator’s ‘leave of absence,’ and the minutes of the Executive Session of October 9, 2014, which appears to have been a meeting about this individual.

We then received a lengthy denial of our request by the School. In the denial, the School quoted a fee of $245 to search the records and provide whatever it deems appropriate at its discretion. It is possible that the School administration would conclude that no documents were releasable even after we had paid this large fee. (See http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/2_17_15_Request_for_Correspond...).

We appealed the School’s denial to the Secretary of State’s Supervisor of Records. The Supervisor issued an Order to the School dated May 21, 2015, with four parts: provide the Executive Session minutes; give specific reasons why each individual responsive record is being withheld or redacted; if any records are being withheld, provide a custodial index; and revise the fee estimate. (See http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/SecState-05-21-2015.pdf).

Incredibly, the School did not comply with any part of the Order. In a nine-page response dated June 8, 2015, the School’s attorney rehashed the same arguments from the first letter. Not a single additional document has been produced, the custodial index was not provided, and the same (high) fee to search and redact an unknown number of responsive documents was quoted. (See http://actonforum.com/sites/default/files/DOC060815-003.pdf).

We have alerted the Supervisor of Records and the Attorney General’s office about the School’s current non-compliance with the Order.

To avoid further delay we decided to pay the $245 fee. This amount is a particularly high barrier for the public to access what should be routine correspondence (albeit of a sensitive nature) consisting of emails and memos. We believe that absent staff time to research or compile documents, fees of this magnitude are against public policy and the spirit of the public document laws. School emails contain the disclaimer that they are presumed to be public documents, but that is belied by charging exorbitant fees to access them.

We have recently requested an accounting of the School’s legal fees incurred (so far) on this issue and will be updating the Acton and Boxborough residents on the School’s wasteful use of their tax dollars.

At the heart of this matter is the spending of public funds to pay an employee who apparently performs no duties and no longer reports to work. The specific reasons for these payments should be a matter of public record no matter what the underlying cause. Spending of public monies should be transparent and accessible. With the presumption that all documents are public, stonewalling reasonable requests such as ours is not a cost-effective strategy for the School nor, we believe, will it be a successful one. We urge you, our representatives, to instruct the administration to fully comply with the Supervisor’s Order without further delay and to review the exorbitant fee that we were forced to pay.

If you need to review the documents referenced in this email, they will be attached to this open letter on the Acton Forum website.

Thanks for your attention to this matter and for your public service.

Allen Nitschelm and Charles Kadlec
Acton Forum editors

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Comments

School Custodians salery

I get It no one wants to pay taxes to cover services. Its interesting that people that have jobs outside City or State employment feal they are worth every cent they make . in fact several even will ask thier employer for a raise. They have no problem with cutting the pay of others. Hard work is hard work no matter what job your doing. We all would like to provide for our families. Should we all work for pay so low that we could not afford shelter or food for our families ? Should we just suck it up and work two jobs. We all pay taxes .

x

Paying for public-sector workers

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure they apply to this topic, but your thoughts are appreciated.

Since the title of your post relates to school custodian salaries, I will respond to your points on that topic. The premise of my reporting on these salaries is that school custodians should not be compensated at $100,000 a year. It is my premise that instead, government workers should be paid as little as possible to get the job done.

Your first statement, that no one wants to pay taxes to cover services, is false. The Democrats love it when people pay more and more taxes, because it means that government grows and government-paid benefits grow. They are not concerned with the long-term effect this has on the private sector, preferring the short-term benefits given to their various constituencies.

But even Republicans "love" to pay taxes. I certainly do, when it comes to supporting our military (to provide for our common defense), paying for schools, hiring inspectors to make sure our food is safe, having police officers and firefighters to protect us, and having air traffic controllers so we can travel, among other things. I just want to keep this "overhead" as low as reasonably possible. And I view that every dollar paid over the minimum is "wasteful spending."

I covered this topic in some detail in three articles here: http://www.actonforum.com/blogs/allenn/government-monopolies

So let me end with a very simple example, and you can tell me what I've got wrong.

Let's say you have two candidates for the job of janitor. One will take the job at an $80,000 salary plus $20,000 in benefits, and the other will take the job at $40,000 salary plus $20,000 in benefits. Both candidates are otherwise equal in experience, skills, and all other factors.

Should the state (or the school) hire the more-expensive candidate because they can better 'provide for their family' earning $80,000, they won't have to "work two jobs" to make ends meet, and they 'pay taxes?'

Or do our government representatives have any obligation to hire the lower-paid but equally qualified worker to keep taxes low, so that the private sector is not overburdened with too-high government overhead?

I would love to hear you justify hiring the $80,000 ($100,000 a year in total compensation) janitor.

Thanks,

Allen

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.