By Evan Allen, Globe Correspondent
Tempers flared at a Wellesley School Committee meeting last night as some residents spoke of collapsing confidence in the school department while others called for patience as the district searches for a new superintendent.
“I think I represent a growing set of parents who are concerned about the administrative issues,” said Paul Baier, parent of an eighth grader and creator of the Facebook page ConcernedParentsofWellesley, a group asking for answers from the beleaguered school department. “I encourage you not to underestimate the speed with which trust is evaporating right now.”
He asked that the School Committee host two 90-minute open forums to give residents a chance to ask questions about the recent problems in the schools, which include accounting issues in the business office, questions about the school’s background check procedures, and health code violations in the cafeterias.
Other residents echoed his concerns, but said that the School Committee was not the problem.
“Yes, I am very disappointed at the administrative issues that have surfaced,” said Alissa Keene, a Wellesley parent with two children in high school. “But before we start the attack on the School Committee, let’s ask ourselves these questions: Are there problems? Yes. Are they fixable? Yes. Are there steps being taken to fix them? Yes… I’d like to ask people to give the School Committee time to fix the issues.”
The School Department came under fire last spring when it was discovered that the business office, headed then by business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell, had failed to collect about $169,000 worth of school lunch debt. A subsequent audit found sloppy accounting in the business office. No misappropriation was discovered.
Last month, Superintendent Bella Wong resigned effective at the end of the school year, and Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave a little more than a week later.
“We as the School Committee acknowledge that the school district has had a rough few months,” said Suzy Littlefield, chair of the School Committee, at the beginning of the meeting. “Do not doubt for a minute that the five of us each take these issues very seriously.”
Littlefield said that she is definitely on board with organizing open forums. She said she hoped to have one before the holidays.
In the last few months, the department’s background check process came under scrutiny after a custodian at the middle school, Gino Lister, was arrested in October for allegedly stealing more than $20,000 worth of Apple products and student-crafted jewelry.
Lister, 35, had been charged in 1998 with assault and battery, and in 2000 with unarmed robbery, breaking and entering in the nighttime, and larceny over $250, according to Framingham District Court Documents. Both sets of charges were continued without a finding and eventually dismissed.
Littlefield said that at the Dec. 20 School Committee meeting, the board school will discuss revising the background check system.
The school department has also faced harsh criticism for its approval of payments totaling about $100,000 to two employees for unused vacation time. Berdell was owed $86,000, which she will receive over a two-year period, said Wong.
Most recently, the food service department has gotten flak for health violations in the Chartwells-run cafeterias, including a rodent infestation in the middle and high schools that has been a problem all fall, according to Wong.
At last night’s meeting, Wong said that the school had switched its pest-control vendor and has stepped up frequency of monitoring and trapping. She said they were optimistic that the new approach would solve the problem quickly.
Littlefield said that recently, a “nasty tone” had crept into the discussions around the schools, and asked that residents be civil.
But the first citizen speak, resident Kate Kane Leach demanded to know why Berdell was still being paid, and accused the School Committee of “protecting the people who work for the system” instead of working towards transparency and accountability. She then accused members of the School Committee of “ruining lives.” When Littlefield asked her to end her comments, Leach refused.
“The buck stops with all of you,” she said. “You can make things better.”
Some residents worried that the rising anger directed at the school department would make it hard to attract a new superintendent.
“Nobody will apply for this job with any merit and quality if they do not feel they are going to be supported by this community,” said Julia de Peyster. “I just ask that the community not come out with a voice of attack, and not come out with a voice of negativity that will directly impact this search for Bella’s replacement.”
Julianne Ivey, board member of Committee 21, a non-partisan advocacy group that supports the schools, said in an interview that the firey tone of the discussion was ultimately counterproductive.
She said that the School Committee was moving in the right direction to try to rebuild the community’s trust by starting the search for a new superintendent.
“I think they’re only going to be able to continue moving in the right direction if the town continues to support them,” she said.
School Committee member Ilissa Povich said that the School Committee issued its request for proposals yesterday for a search consultant for the superintendent search. Littlefield has said that they hope to have a new superintendent in place by July 1.
The School Committee is still waiting on the results of another audit of the business department being conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials. The results, Littlefield said, should be in very soon.
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.