November 9, 2011
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.
Link to story