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ABOUT TOWN - Stoughton School Committee Member: Dr. Rizzi "Playing Russian Roulette" with State Funds

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SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEMBER SAYS RIZZI PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH STATE FUNDS - School Committee member Dr. Erdem Ural fired off a number of missives to the press, his fellow board members, the Selectmen, and others, but his biggest volley was addressed to Superintendent of Schools  Dr. Marguerite Rizzi and Stoughton Schools Finance Director Jessica Denison.

He wrote that he stumbled upon a letter from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by accident on December 10. The letter, dated December 3, 2012, stated, in part:

“We have not received your 2011-2012 End of Year Financial Report. While you may have been granted an extension, that extension has expired. If your completed report is not electronically submitted to us by December 17, 2012, we will be withholding 50% of your scheduled December Chapter 70 distribution, as well as your December Circuit Breaker Payment. We have tried to be sympathetic to local issues, but can no longer wait for this information.”

It was signed by John J. Sullivan, Executive Director of School & Financial Support for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  

Dr. Ural wrote to Rizzi and Denison via email, “I am appalled that you failed to do your job by playing Russian roulette with our Chapter 70 and Circuit Breaker revenues. At the same time, you also failed to inform the School Committee members. Stoughton needs every penny of the aid to make ends meet. (As you are aware, the aid is in excess of 14 million dollars per year.) The Town pays the two of you professional salaries in excess of $270,000. In return, we need professional performance, please. I demand that you make the required submittal by December 17, and provide me with a copy of it.”  

Dr. Rizzi told About Town that, “People are making a bigger deal with this than it is. It is a very complicated document. We always try to make the deadlines. It’s common to ask for deadline extensions. Jessica was late meeting the deadlines. But, we filed on Monday, December 10.

Dr. Rizzi continued, "The money was never in any danger. There was never a question we’d meet the December 17 final deadline. We were never at that point. It was kind of a routine exchange. The annual report and annual budget need to be done at the same time. We don’t need it to create the same type of burden it did this year. We do things well and efficiently. We’re always looking to put a better process in place. We won’t have this happen again next year. It’s never been an issue before. We have these types of dialogues all the time with the Department.” 

School Committee Chair Deb Sovinee wasn’t pleased with Ural’s missive. She told About Town, “This is a mountain being made out of a molehill. There was never any danger that money to the town would be lost. The annual report has been submitted and was filed yesterday (12/10). A copy is ready for the Superintendent and me to sign this afternoon (12/11). As a School District, we are constantly reviewing all our processes to make them perfect, and this is no exception to that standing rule. The report is complicated and a routine extension was asked for the way one asks for an extension on one's federal income tax filing. No harm was done, or would have been done, to the Town or District."

Sovinee continued, "The questions that I have are why Dr. Ural continues his non-stop campaign - through a stream of emails, letters and cable TV appearances - to denigrate the Stoughton School District, the School Committee, the Superintendent, and the achievements of our students and staff. Addressing his attacks, his snippets of misleading information, and the verbal abuse of the staff, the superintendent, the School Committee and myself costs me and the administration hours of valuable time that would be better used to move the School District forward.

"Well over $12,000 has been spent on attorney fees dealing with a stream of accusations by Dr. Ural," she said.  "I spend hours each week, as does the superintendent, fending off these attacks. It is an enormous waste of everyone's time. It is easy to sit back and lob grenades, make mountains out of molehills, and criticize others. The hard work that so many people in our town take up involves developing positive ideas, and bringing them to fruition by collaborating with others to move Stoughton in a positive direction. My hope is that Dr. Ural would have pursued a positive course of action and better served the taxpayers, voters and students.”  

But, Ural begs to differ with both the Superintendent and School Committee Chair. He says, “The point is we have professionals in charge, and this is 14 million dollars of revenue. You’d think they’d submit it on time. The extension was taken and they missed that, too. The School Committee was never informed of it. I heard it was in the Selectmen’s packets and got a copy of it. [School Administration] keep serious things away from school committee members. I asked for a copy of the document when it was submitted. My job is to see that we meet deadlines and not jeopardize revenues. I’m still waiting for a copy of the document, as requested. As for the $12,000 in legal fees, I’ve asked for documents that support that figure. I’m not sure if it’s from old stuff when they were found to be guilty of breaking the law.”  

Ural also told this columnist that the School Committee may have violated the open meeting law again at their December 11 meeting.

He says, “That night, they changed the Superintendent’s and Assistant Superintendent’s contracts. They were entitled to $150 per year for travel in the contract. Dr. Rizzi has been drawing $150 per month. I asked her to reimburse the town on November 29 approximately $6,000 for what she has collected so far. They never replied to me. They also changed Assistant Superintendent Jonathan Ford’s contract from $150 per year to $150 per month. Ford’s contract was not even on the agenda. That violated the Open Meeting law. I said if they were going to change the contract, they must give something back. As a consideration for the change in contract, I asked that the words "mutually agreeable" be changed to 'confer' or 'consult.' This conforms to the contract language recommended by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Dr.Rizzi said she would not agree to that.”  

School Committee member Tom Colburn, who negotiated Rizzi’s original contract as Assistant Superintendent when he chaired the School Committee, said that a $150 per month “stipend” for travel was negotiated and agreed to by both parties. He was shocked that the $150 per month negotiated deal was inadvertently listed as $150 per year.

He tells About Town, “We were paying the intended amount. No one caught it. It slipped through that contract and subsequent ones. None of the Committee members or legal counsel noticed it. Claire McCarthy, the previous Superintendent, had the same $150 a month stipend. We corrected both contracts at our December 11 meeting to reflect the agreement we shook on. In order to adjust the contract to correct an unfortunate error, Dr. Ural wanted to use that opportunity to change the language of the contract. We should not parlay a clerical error into an advantage for the town.”  

Ural also objected to what he said was the perception that “all the other school committee members came to the meeting and had talked to the school’s lawyer about it. The School Committee lawyer is supposed to protect the School Committee and the Town. In this case, it was the Superintendent that was protected."

He said that the School Committee should look at what the Board of Selectmen did when they recently signed new Town Manager Michael Hartman to a contract.

Ural, in figures he lists on his website (www.02072.org), contends that incoming Town Manager Michael Hartman is to be paid $135,000 per year, with a 1-3% raise each year, 20 vacation days, 10 sick days, 1 personal day, 5 bereavement days, and unlimited use of town vehicle or $300 per month (town’s choice.)

Ural says that Rizzi’s contract pays $168,500 per year, with 2.5% minimum raises each year, 25 vacation days, 20 sick days, 5 personal days, and 5 consecutive bereavement days. He adds that she gets up to 240 days of sick day accumulation. Hartman doesn’t get any.

Ural adds, “Stoughton taxpayers often complain about the high cost of Town employee benefits. It will be wonderful if the Town executives affect change by setting example. I am grateful to the Selectmen for starting such a great tradition. Hopefully, the Superintendent and the School Committee will follow suit.” (It should be noted that the previous Town Manager, Francis T. Crimmins, Jr. made $168,000 a year. Interim Town Manager Joseph D. Feaster, Jr. was paid a pro-rated $140,000 a year.)  

Sovinee responds, “After several years of no raises for the Superintendent, we looked at comparable positions in other towns, when we negotiated Dr. Rizzi's new contract. We looked at how big the district is. We looked at her experience and the quality of her work. Dr. Rizzi was being actively recruited by other towns. We didn’t want to lose her. It doesn’t help to have high turnover in the top position in education in our town. She was the third superintendent in five years at the time. She has a vision for where she wants to take the school district. The vote was unanimous, and it was based on the data we examined. She is the CEO of a 38 million dollar corporation, with 600 employees, nearly 4,000 students, and 81% of all the town’s buildings.  That's not comparable to the Town Manager position.”  

I guess the thing that really disturbs me about this story is that a School Committee member seemingly has nothing good to say about our schools. His website is loaded with negativity toward the Stoughton Public School System. Every negative bit of information is posted there. 

I think it’s healthy to have someone looking at things from a different perspective. Dr. Ural has shed light in some areas that needed to see daylight. But, beyond some of the troubles in our school system is the amazing success of many of its students. By denigrating the program, you take them all down. I know how great the school has been for my two chldren. My daughter just got a 3.5 at the University of Delaware in her first semester. The Stoughton School System certainly played a part in it. My son graduates from college in May.

Dr. Ural has two young sons he adores. If he wants them to succeed, and keeps them in our public schools, then he needs to spend his energy lifting the school’s up, not knocking them down. By keeping the Committee on its toes, that can be a good thing. But, he needs to mix the negative with some positive feedback. Image is everything. If parents read negative comments about the schools from a school committee member, how enthused will they be to send their children there?  

And, the school department should NEVER receive letters like that from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. There’s really no excuse for missing not only a deadline, but an extension of that deadline. It’s something that needs to be addressed, and I'm glad that was recognized as such by the powers that be.  Perhaps it was due to a new person in the financial chair for the schools.  But, if another similar letter crosses my desk, I'd advocate for a head to roll.

As for the previously mentioned issue with the travel stipend, I believe that there was a clerical error based on the fact that a recent scholarship brochure aimed at businesses had a blatant typo and the original statement of interests for the South School and Stoughton High School were riddled with errors that were pointed out in a public meeting by Selectman Cynthia Walsh, a former Stoughton School teacher.  

Still, there is much to be proud of in our schools, from some of the most amazing teachers, to some creative and effective administrators. But, as we all saw during the tragic loss of David Wade and Shayla Lutz, the students in our school system deserve our respect and support. They are the incredible ones.

That’s the bottom line.

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