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WELLESLEY | notebook

Berdell vows to fight her dismissal

Business manager received $183,364

By Evan Allen
Globe Correspondent / March 18, 2012
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The Wellesley school business manager, terminated from her longtime job last week amid controversy over operation of the business office, has collected $183,364 in compensation since July 1, school officials said Friday.

The manager, Ruth Quinn Berdell, insists that her termination by Superintendent Bella Wong was wrongful. Berdell plans to fight it in arbitration with the district, her lawyer said, raising the prospect of a drawn-out battle over a case that has already distracted the Wellesley school system.

“We feel strongly that there is no good-faith basis for her termination and that she is being used as a scapegoat by her superior,’’ said Lawrence P. Murray in an e-mail. He declined to name a figure, but said they would be “seeking compensation.’’

On March 13, Wong announced that Berdell’s employment had ended, effective that day, and characterized the move as “a personnel matter.’’ It came nearly four months after Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave amid controversy over the business office’s management.

“The superintendent terminated her employment,’’ said a statement provided Friday by Assistant Superintendent Salvatore Petralia. Berdell will not receive any severance pay, he said.

As the business administrator, Berdell was scheduled to receive an annual salary of $138,211 for the 2011-2012 year. She will not be paid for the full year, Petralia said, although accrued benefits will bump her far over her normal salary.

Between July 1, 2011 and March 13 of this year, Petralia said, Berdell received $183,364 in compensation. The total includes $84,359 in accrued vacation pay, he said. He said she was also paid $48,718 in regular pay since going on leave in mid-November.

Petralia said that Berdell appears to be eligible for a pension, should she decide to apply for it.

Wong did not respond to a request for comment regarding Berdell’s stated intent to enter arbitration.

“I don’t even know if that’s happening. She was just terminated as of Tuesday,’’ said Wellesley Town Counsel Albert Robinson. “I’m not aware of an expression of intention on her part, and if I were I wouldn’t have any comment on it.’’

The district has faced intense scrutiny over the last year as it has dealt with a series of controversies that began last spring when it was discovered that the business office had not collected about $169,000 worth of school lunch debt.

An audit triggered by the discovery and released in September showed a business office that operated with few written protocols and little outside oversight. It found a lack of “adequate monitoring or analytical procedures being applied to the management of the various revenue cycles of the schools.’’

No misappropriation was uncovered, but the district endured a barrage of public criticism. Berdell has not responded to requests from the Globe for comment.

Wong has said that the lapse in billing was caused by faulty software that has since been replaced. The debt has shrunk to a little less than $25,000.

Berdell was at the center of another controversy when it came to light that she had racked up more than $80,000 worth of rolled-over vacation pay over her career. Berdell began in Wellesley in 1986 as manager of financial operations, and was appointed business manager in 1997.

She was one of two employees allowed to accumulate vacation time year to year, and Wong has said that Berdell and the other employee, who has not been identified and who was owed about $15,000, were operating under an old policy that the rest of the school staff was not on.

Wong herself resigned on Nov. 10, effective at the end of the school year, citing “ongoing public concern over school operational protocols.’’ Just a little more than a week later, Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave.

Murray said in an e-mail that Berdell was terminated without good-faith basis “in an apparent attempt to savage her in order to salvage the reputation of her superior.’’ He offered as proof a job performance evaluation written by Wong in July and signed by both Wong and Berdell in October of last year that gave a glowing evaluation of Berdell’s work.

“I feel extremely fortunate to have you as a colleague,’’ Wong wrote in the evaluation. “Your work is always excellent, but your workload is extremely demanding.’’ Wong said in her evaluation that problems with the food service department were caused largely by other employees, but that she and Berdell were the two who “bore the public brunt of the bad outcome.’’

Berdell’s paid leave has riled Wellesley residents.

“It seems incredibly unfair to the other employees of the Wellesley school district that she’s getting such preferential treatment,’’ said Paul Baier, a Wellesley parent who started the group ConcernedParentsofWellesley in response to administrative lapses within the school.

“It’s clearly against standard business practice to have four months’ paid leave,’’ he said.

Petralia said that neither the town nor the school has a written policy regarding voluntary paid administrative leave. The School Department, he said, has previously placed staff on paid administrative leave pending resolution of a personnel matter.

An interim school business administrator has been hired to begin on April 2 and has a contract to serve through June 30, 2013. She will be paid an annual salary of $138,311 for the period of April 2, 2012 through June 30, 2012, pro-rated based on the number of days worked, according to Petralia.

School Committee chairwoman Suzy Littlefield did not respond to requests for comment.

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