SPED needs accountability

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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Katdell on Mon Sep 19, 2011 11:48 am

OK, I try REALLY hard to stay out of these political issues, but I feel I must get this off my chest.
"We are not dealing with a system that is failing our children or failing our school districts," Koocher said. Have any of those who are bashing the MEC ever been into it? Know of a family whose child has attended? It does not bother me that some of the staff are on waivers due to certification. Perhaps due to issues of their own they were not able to successfully pass the certification exams. This truly does not make them bad or insufficient teachers in the field they passionately choose. If they have the proper training in dealing with the special needs of the children and young/adults attending the program, as long as they are supervised for the safety of themselves and the children this should not be a deciding factor in their employment. It is a tough job they do with high turn-over, low pay and an easy target for ‘job burn out’.. I do not have a child personally who has attended the MEC, but have worked with several districts and families whose children did/do attend. They have had nothing but accolades for the staff that go above and beyond to really emphasise the “I” in IEP. They bring their own true life skills and implement them into their curriculum and teachings, really giving these kids (in some aspects) a better education than those at the public schools. Sure, they (MEC students) may never go to Harvard or other pristine schools that the typical public school (and private school) kids will, but they will have the life skills to function in society in a positive and productive way.

Did someone do something bad and despicable at the MEC? Yes. Does it mean we should have the place shut down and keep all of those who attend the MEC in their own home districts without proper programming? NO. I Know McGrath was very passionate when it came to children and education REGARDLESS of their abilities. I don’t believe that she would have known something this bad was going on and just looked the other way. There is only so much we can expect our Superintendent’s to truly watch over and as residents of the town, we all need to do a little bit to help. BUT, I’m wondering why no one is looking at the person(s) who actually send the money over to the MEC? The state taking over would do more harm than good…there wouldn’t be a change…the money would be going from the pockets of one, to the hands of the state. And where do all of these people go if MEC closes its doors?

There is another lesson to be learned here. The only issues they’ve found thus far are the money issue and non-certification issue. With those two set aside, I find it amazing that someone was able to ‘remove’ these large amounts of money from the MEC budget and it did not affect the services delivered. Let’s just say it was $50K a year…perhaps we could ‘budget’ that amount to a position that would create a system or safety net to prevent this from happening again. Any monies left over could then be given back to the attending districts based on a percentage. For example, Tewksbury students take up 25% of the enrolment, and then Tewksbury would receive 25% of the un-used budget back. This is not my area of expertise (the budget and whose job is whose thing), but just a thought.
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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Chasnbos on Tue Sep 20, 2011 7:51 am

No doubt that many work hard for no money to support the goings on at the top.
But Dr McGrath sat on the board and had "due diligence" responsibility that taxpayer monies weren't being misused. She is not alone in the laundry list of inside overseers who choose not to question the actions of their peers.

No wonder everyone kept their mouth shut!

I could never figure out way we paid 1.3M for SPED education, I guess some of that will come to light
State probing Billerica school board member's $60G pension from MEC
By Erin Smith, esmith@lowellsun.com
Updated: 09/19/2011 08:41:52 AM EDT

BILLERICA -- Billerica School Committee member Marie Blanchette's nearly $60,000-a-year state pension is coming under scrutiny in a widening probe of potential misuse of taxpayer dollars and possible pension fraud at a local special-education agency.

Blanchette said she has been questioned by the state Ethics Commission but declined to elaborate what was discussed for confidentiality reasons. The state Treasurer's Office is also looking into the way Blanchette's pension credits were accrued.

Blanchette earned her salary from the Merrimack Education Center, a local private nonprofit agency, where she worked as a transportation manager for nearly 23 years. But during those years, Blanchette's name was also listed on the payroll of a related taxpayer-funded agency, Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative. The payroll listing allowed her to earn credit in the state's pension system even though she worked at the nonprofit MEC, according to state officials and a recent state audit report.

State and federal investigators are trying to untangle the accounting records for MEC and the collaborative, which illegally operated as one entity for decades, as they look into charges that leaders at the organizations misused at least $37 million in taxpayer money in just the past several years.

State investigators allege that John Barranco fraudulently redirected millions in public funds for personal and questionable uses through his simultaneous
control of the collaborative and MEC. Investigators say Barranco retired as head of the collaborative in 2005 but maintained control of the public agency through his position as executive director of MEC. Barranco is on unpaid leave from his $500,000 job at MEC.
Blanchette, who retired June 30, 2010, and earns an annual state pension of $59,421, said the school business managers in Billerica and Tewksbury created the position of transportation director for her more than 20 years ago.

"They were getting a lot of complaints about transportation for special education back then, and so they went to Merrimack Education Center and started the program through them," Blanchette said.

She said MEC officials told her the pension credit from working 13 years as an administrative assistant in Billerica's school business office would follow her to her new job.

"It was one company, and the transportation was under them," said Blanchette, who was elected to the Billerica School Committee in April 2001.

Blanchette declined to comment on her recent discussion with state ethics officials, citing confidentiality. The Ethics Commission does not confirm nor deny whether a complaint has been received or whether there is an open investigation.

The state Treasurer's Office is also investigating a number of pensions associated with the collaborative, including Blanchette's case.

"She is one of a number of people we have asked for information from the collaborative," said Jon Carlisle, a spokesman for the state Treasurer's Office.

According to state auditors, Blanchette's salary was expensed to MEC, but she was listed on the collaborative's payroll until January 2010. State auditors began investigating the spending at the collaborative and MEC in December 2009.

State pensions are calculated based on the length of service, age of retirement and the three highest salaried years, according to Carlisle.

Blanchette's three highest salaried years were during her last three years working at MEC. The investigation into how much the MEC job boosted her pension is ongoing, Carlisle said.

Blanchette, who earned $81,580 annually at MEC, said her retirement last year had nothing to do with the state's investigation into the two organizations.

Shortly after Blanchette was elected to the Billerica School Committee, she sought an opinion from the Ethics Commission concerning conflicts with her job at MEC, which supplies special-education services, including transportation. The commission advised the entire board to be designated as special municipal employees to avoid conflict, and the board complied.
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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Chasnbos on Wed Sep 28, 2011 12:22 pm

Step in the right directions except for the fact the MA DOE is not frugal entity. The state also needs to rein in the cost of out of district SPED expense since most of them are exclusive.
State officials: Scrap special-ed collaboratives
By Erin Smith, esmith@lowellsun.com
Updated: 09/28/2011 06:36:18 AM EDT

MALDEN -- Top education officials want to scrap the state's troubled special-education collaboratives and create a regionalized system that serves special-needs students while partnering with the state to provide professional development and training for local schools.

The reforms proposed by state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester yesterday come amid the state auditor's findings last month that former local school superintendents and their friends misused at least $37 million at Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative over several years, racking up charges for restaurant meals, parties, bar tabs, golf outings and out-of-state trips.

Under Chester's plan, the collaboratives, education agencies and school districts would have to come up with a plan to consolidate or expand the state's 30 special-education collaboratives to provide services for the entire state by Dec. 31, 2012. If they fail to meet the deadline, the state education board would have the authority to restructure the entire system.

Chester needs new laws to put his plan in place. The state Legislature is eyeing passage of new rules this fall to strengthen state oversight of the collaboratives, and Chester is scheduled to testify at a Joint Committee on Education hearing today.

Chester also plans to change department regulations to ensure that collaboratives maintain educator licensing requirements similar to the requirements in school districts and require collaboratives

to report MCAS scores separately instead of with the students' home school districts.
Collaboratives would still be able to seek the services of affiliated nonprofits, but Chester recommends the state develop regulations to prevent waste and abuse.

State officials alleged John Barranco, former executive director of nonprofit Merrimack Education Center Executive, fraudulently redirected millions in public funds for personal and questionable uses through his simultaneous control of Merrimack Special Education Collaborative and affiliated nonprofit MEC.

Chester also recommends these legislative changes:

* The state education board would be given explicit authority to issue regulations for collaborative.

* Collaborative boards would meet a minimum of six times per year. Newly appointed board members would undergo mandatory state training, and superintendents and school committee members would not be allowed to designate another person to serve in their place. The state education commissioner would appoint an independent member to each collaborative board.

* Annual independent audits would be required at all collaboratives.

* Adult basic education services would continue to be provided, but Chester recommends other adult programs, including job training, work support, and human services not be offered by collaboratives
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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Chasnbos on Tue Oct 25, 2011 8:54 am

Great turn it back over to the MA DOE for oversight.That agency is as bloated as it gets. Cronyism is an accepted practice among the higher echelon of educators.
Code of green! I remember our good Dr M when asked about a situation she fail to act upon.
She said " Welcome to public school" I translated that into yes kids are important since they provide jobs for us but not a priority when promoting our agendas and careers.

Bill's aim: Rein in ed collaboratives
By Chris Camire, ccamire@lowellsun.com
Updated: 10/25/2011 06:37:05 AM EDT

BOSTON -- A lawmaker is looking to tighten oversight of state education collaboratives in the wake of allegations that the Merrimack Special Educational Collaborative misspent millions in taxpayer money.

The bill, authored by state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, would prohibit employees or board members of a collaborative from serving in similar capacities at a related nonprofit agency.

The measure would have prevented John Barranco from simultaneously controlling the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative and the Chelmsford-based nonprofit Merrimack Education Center before he retired as head of the collaborative in 2005.

Barranco, who was fired from MEC last month, is accused of using the collaborative and MEC as his personal bank account, rewarding excessive salaries and perks to himself, friends and former superintendents, and paying for expensive clothes, shoes and dinners, trips to Florida and the Kentucky Derby, and upgrades to his vacation homes, according to a report from state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan.

Chang-Diaz's bill would also set up new, stricter financial reporting requirements for the collaboratives.

It also requires collaborative board members to file disclosure forms with the state Ethics Commission to reveal conflicts of interest stemming from any financial interest they may have in a related nonprofit organization.

A state audit uncovered $37 million in questionable expenses at the Merrimack Special
Education Collaborative within several years. The inspector general has alleged that Barranco fraudulently redirected at least $11.5 million in public funds for personal and questionable uses through his simultaneous control of the collaborative and MEC.

"I continue to be deeply angered by reports of shoddy accounting practices, excessive compensation packages and overall shameful abuse of tax dollars intended for children," Chang-Diaz said. "My goal is that we move quickly as a Legislature to make sure that abuses like this can't go on unchecked again."

State Auditor Suzanne Bump, whose office conducted the recent audit, said in a statement, "I look forward to continuing to work with Legislators in both the House and Senate, the Governor and municipal and community leaders to find the right solutions needed to put education collaboratives back on track."

Chang-Diaz described her bill as a "framework" rather than a "final product" to achieving that goal, noting that the bill is the product of suggestions made during testimony at oversight hearings held over the past three weeks by the Joint Committee on Education.

The bill assigns more explicit regulatory authority to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, requires collaboratives to use standard accounting principles, and ensures that appointees to collaborative boards represent important skill sets, such as financial controls, business operations and educational programming.

The bill also requires that school administrators at collaboratives be certified professionals, equivalent to the current requirement on teachers at collaboratives and on par with requirements for local school-district administrators.

Senate President Therese Murray, a Plymouth Democrat, applauded Chang-Diaz for what she described as taking an important step toward ensuring oversight and accountability of these organizations.

"I continue to be deeply disturbed by the financial abuses in some of our education collaboratives in Massachusetts, and the findings demand action now," Murray said

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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Jensen on Tue Oct 25, 2011 10:34 am

I'm really glad to see that Chang-Diaz is steppping up, but she's not Tewksbury's reps. Where is Finegold and Miceli? It's great that their meeting with the Superintendent and the School Committee members on this issue, but they should be in the thick of this considering Tewksbury may "potentially" see some financial reimbursement from this when all is said and done.
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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Chasnbos on Fri Oct 28, 2011 7:30 am

State will soon take MSEC reins
Oversight team set up to oversee finances of special-ed agency
By Erin Smith, esmith@lowellsun.com
Updated: 10/28/2011 06:35:43 AM EDT

Klimkiewicz: State takeover "a formality"

Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our MyCapture site. BILLERICA -- A state oversight team could be in place to monitor the finances and hiring at a troubled special-education agency as early as next week, according to state officials.

The board for Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative is expected to sign the agreement with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as early as the board's meeting Wednesday.

"It's basically now a formality," said Judith Klimkiewicz, chairwoman of the board and superintendent of Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford.

The local school superintendents who oversee the collaborative have been scrambling to turn around the finances, leadership and public perception of the organization since June,

Fletcher: Resigned this month

when the state inspector general revealed alleged rampant misuse of taxpayer funds at the organization and the related nonprofit Merrimack Education Center.
John Barranco, former executive director of both the collaborative and the Chelmsford-based Merrimack Education Center, allegedly spent millions in public funds slated for special-needs students on restaurant meals, parties, bar tabs, golf outings, out-of-state trips and renovations to his Lake Winnipesaukee and Florida vacation homes.

Last week, Massachusetts Teachers' Retirement System officials decided to dock Barranco's pension for the next six years, finding that he illegally collected a pension while simultaneously holding a job paid for with government funds.

The collaborative's most recent co-executive directors, John Fletcher and Donna Goodell, resigned earlier this month, according to Klimkiewicz.
The pair were placed on paid leave in August. Last month, state officials revealed that the collaborative's board began proceedings to terminate Fletcher and Goodell, whose contracts require a 30-day termination notice.

Fletcher and Goodell made more than $103,000 in questionable credit-card charges, including about $18,000 for lunches and dinners

Goodell: Resigned this month

on restaurant receipts often labeled "bar," as well as 37 golf charges totaling $5,735 and labeled "staff meetings," according to a state auditor's report.
The board has since hired Robert McArdle as interim executive director and begun severing ties with MEC, which allegedly reaped more than $11 million from the collaborative through questionable transactions, according to a June report from state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan.

MEC still provides some administrative services to the collaborative, but leaders of the publicly funded collaborative hope to put their own financial team in place, including a business manager and treasurer, by the time they ink the oversight agreement with the state.

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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Chasnbos on Fri Oct 28, 2011 7:35 am

Barranco ordered to repay $764G to pension fund
By Erin Smith, esmith@lowellsun.com
Updated: 10/27/2011 08:32:49 AM EDT

Ah the perks of public service!

In June, Barranco was placed on unpaid leave as head of MEC after the state inspector general released a report alleging Barranco misused millions in taxpayer funds, using the money to renovate and decorate his Lake Winnipesaukee and Florida vacation homes

BOSTON -- Pension officials docked the retirement pay for a former Groton-Dunstable school superintendent under federal investigation and continued to probe possible pension abuse by former Tyngsboro Superintendent David Hawkins and former North Middlesex Regional School Superintendent James McCormick.

John Barranco, who is under federal investigation for allegedly misusing millions in public funds intended for local special-education students at Billerica-based Merrimack Special Education Collaborative, won't be eligible to collect a pension check again until April 2018 under the Oct. 20 ruling.

Pension officials say Barranco, whose annual pension tops nearly $158,000, earned a higher public salary than allowed while cashing his pension checks. The Massachusetts Teachers' Retirement System ruled Barranco must repay the pension fund $764,504, the equivalent of more than six years worth of pension checks.

Barranco has appealed the decision to the Contributory Retirement Appeal Board, according to Sean Neilon, a spokesman for MTRS.

Nicholas Poser, Barranco's attorney in the pension proceedings, said the appeals process takes many years and criticized the decision.

"It's based on speculation and innuendo. It was frankly a decision that was made before the hearing," said Poser.

Poser said pension officials have no proof Barranco was ever directly paid by a government agency while he collected a pension.

Pension officials say Barranco retired from the publicly funded collaborative in 2005, but continued to work for the related nonprofit Merrimack Education Center. The collaborative used taxpayer money to reimburse MEC for more than half of Barranco's salary, which topped $500,000, MTRS officials alleged.
Pensions officials are also investigating whether Hawkins and McCormick broke any pension laws while working at MEC, which state officials allege was funded with public money meant for special-needs students at the collaborative. Barranco hired Hawkins and McCormick to six-figure jobs at MEC shortly after they retired from their school districts and began collecting pensions from their former superintendent positions.

Hawkins receives $97,600 in annual pension pay, while McCormick's annual pension is $111,600. McCormick, who also works part time as superintendent in Mason, N.H., earned $95,378 last year in that job, according to the district's budget.

Hawkins declined comment when reached by phone yesterday. McCormick did not respond to messages left at his Townsend home or at his Mason, N.H., office yesterday seeking comment.

State law allows Barranco and other pensioners to work for government organizations in Massachusetts after retirement, as long as they work for no more than 960 hours per year or earn more than the difference between their retirement pay and the current salary for the position from which they retire.

The MTRS previously docked Barranco's pension for $51,242 last year after the organization found he had exceeded retirement earning limits.

The pension ruling is the latest in a series of blows to what state officials allege was Barranco's once-high-flying lifestyle funded with special-education taxpayer dollars.

In June, Barranco was placed on unpaid leave as head of MEC after the state inspector general released a report alleging Barranco misused millions in taxpayer funds, using the money to renovate and decorate his Lake Winnipesaukee and Florida vacation homes. The MEC board fired him last month.

It's possible Barranco could lose his pension permanently because state law requires public employees convicted of misappropriating government funds to forfeit their pensions.

Federal prosecutors are investigating the allegations that Barranco and other former local school superintendents misused at least $37 million at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative over several years, spending money meant for special-needs students on restaurant meals, parties, bar tabs, golf outings and out-of-state trips.

Barranco's ex-wife, Charlene, who receives about $40,000 of his annual pension as part of their divorce agreement, according to documents, will not have her portion of Barranco's pension docked as part of the recent ruling, but she will have to forfeit her payments if Barranco were to lose his entire pension through a criminal conviction, according to Neilon.

Barranco is also facing thousands of dollars in potential fines and a civil lawsuit from the state Ethics Commission. Ethics officials allege Barranco broke the state's conflict-of-interest law when he hired lobbyist Richard McDonough for a no-show job with a six-figure salary, medical and dental benefits, and a public pension he wouldn't have been eligible to collect otherwise.

McDonough, who was recently convicted on federal corruption charges in a case involving kickbacks taken by former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, actually worked as a contract lobbyist for MEC, according to state officials. Ethics-enforcement agents want the commission to authorize a civil lawsuit against the pair to recoup the hundreds of thousands of dollars McDonough reaped in salary, medical benefits and pension checks.

Barranco's lawyer, Thomas Kiley, filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on Sept. 8, arguing the commission doesn't have jurisdiction over Barranco because he retired in 2005 and currently lives in New Hampshire. The commission denied the request four days later, striking down that argument. The case has been put on hold until January, when the commission will schedule a pretrial hearing.

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Re: SPED needs accountability

Postby Chasnbos on Wed Nov 09, 2011 9:44 am

Ed collaboratives poised for overhaul
The Lowell Sun
Updated: 11/09/2011 06:35:18 AM EST
By Katie Lannan

Statehouse Correspondent

BOSTON -- State lawmakers continued their crackdown on alleged excesses by some of the state's education collaboratives yesterday, hearing two bills that would increase accountability and oversight of the collaboratives.

The proposed legislation comes after state Auditor Suzanne Bump released reports on the finances of three of the state's 27 education collaboratives, including $37 million in questionable and undocumented expenses at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative.

The audits pointed to a broken system, which put at risk the interests of taxpayers and special-needs students, both of which are meant to be the beneficiaries of the collaboratives, said First Deputy Auditor Laura Marlin, testifying on behalf of the state auditor's office before the Joint Committee on Education. "They revealed an urgent need to address the laws that govern educational collaboratives."

Education collaboratives allow neighboring school districts to pool resources to serve students with learning disabilities and other special needs. Education Secretary Paul Reville said some collaboratives had exploited their ability to govern themselves and manage their own finances.

"The alleged grotesque abuses of power chronicled in the press over the past several months make it essential for the administration and the Legislature to act quickly to ensure the best elements of education collaboratives are protected,while the worst offenses cannot be repeated," Reville said.
A bill proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick would require the appointment of an independent voting member to each committee's board of directors, call for a minimum of six board meetings per year, and mandate that all new board members receive training from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"These provisions ensure the taxpayers and educational leaders of the commonwealth are not left to powerlessly watch in dismay the next time allegations emerge that employees and board members of an education collaborative have abused their authority," Reville said.

A similar bill filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, would tighten the financial reporting requirements on collaboratives, and bar collaborative employees or board members from holding similar positions at related nonprofits.

According to a report by the state inspector general, John Barranco, the former executive director of the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative, allegedly misused millions in taxpayer funds intended for the collaborative, funneling them through the Chelmsford-based Merrimack Education Center that he ran.

Both bills would require independent annual audits of the collaboratives' finances. The collaboratives would have to report the audit results to their member school districts.

Theresa Watts, executive director of the Concord Area Special Education Collaborative, told the committee that although she supported the proposed legislation, she was concerned by the cost that additional audits and reporting would carry.

"The expansion of rules must not come at the expense of some of the commonwealth's most vulnerable children and families," she said.
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