Amid discord, school board starts search
Some call for business manager to quit
As the Wellesley School Committee launched its search for a new superintendent following Bella Wong’s resignation, several people called last week for the district’s business manager, Ruth Quinn Berdell, to step down as well.
“We need to gain trust and faith back into this school system and the administration,’’ said Franny Campbell, who was a cafeteria worker in the Wellesley public schools for 17 years until the district privatized the food service system.
School Committee chairwoman Suzy Littlefield said she had no comment about whether the board would ask for Berdell’s resignation. Berdell, whose salary is $138,211 this fiscal year, could not be reached for comment.
The School Committee began the search for a new superintendent Tuesday night by unanimously appointing two members, KC Kato and Ilissa Povich, to a subcommittee spearheading the effort.
“It’s a big job, it will be a little engulfing,’’ Littlefield said. “I think there’s a lot of tension in the community.’’
Wong, who was hired as superintendent in early 2007, will finish out the school year, when her contract ends. She will not be receiving any send-off package, Littlefield said.
Her salary is $178,073 this year, according to the superintendent’s office.
School Committee members said they are hopeful they will have a new superintendent in place by July 1, but said that usually the search for a superintendent would start earlier in the year, perhaps September.
“The option of an interim is always a possibility,’’ said Kato.
It has been a rocky year for Wellesley’s school district, starting with the discovery last spring of about $169,000 in uncollected school lunch fees. A subsequent audit uncovered sloppy bookkeeping in the business department, which is headed by Berdell, but found no misappropriation of funds.
In a Nov. 10 letter to parents and staff announcing her resignation, Wong stated that “ongoing public concern over school operational protocols’’ had put the district on the defensive, and undermined her capacity to advocate for it effectively. Resigning, she said, was in the best interest of the students.
School Committee members said community input would be critical in their decision-making process in selecting the district’s next top administrator.
“I see this being very inclusive, very collaborative,’’ said Kato. Asked what she was looking for in a new superintendent, she said that it was less about what she wanted than about what was best for the town.
“I see myself as really shepherding the process to see what the community is looking for,’’ Kato said.
The School Committee said it will hold public forums offering residents the chance to discuss the qualities they want in a new superintendent. “I do hope to be open minded,’’ said Povich.
Katie Smith Milway, a Wellesley resident who has three children in the school system, encouraged the committee to consider nontraditional applicants, by looking beyond resumes with typical credentials.
“If you want to avoid the kinds of issues that have cropped up, you have to create a culture where people do the right thing when no one’s looking,’’ she said.
While Tuesday night’s meeting was mostly about the search for a new superintendent, several residents called on the School Committee to request Berdell’s resignation.
“My sentiment is, unless Ruth Berdell is gone as well, you’re not going to have that trust and faith,’’ Campbell said.
Rick Plouffe, a lawyer who has been an outspoken critic of the school district ever since the lunch-money issues were discovered, also called for Berdell’s resignation. Milway seconded the request.
The business office is undergoing another audit by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials. The results are expected at the start of next month, said Littlefield.
The School Committee ended the meeting in an executive session. Littlefield said the panel discussed potential litigation, and while she declined to comment on specifics, she said that no votes were taken.
The next School Committee meeting will be held on Nov. 29.