Blue Ribbon Task Force Gets Positive Input in Recommendations

The mayoral-appointed Blue Ribbon Task Force on school finances presented its findings and recommendations to a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee on Weds., Sept. 4, at City Hall, and it was a moment whereby many bad practices of the past were brought into the light – and given a path out of the woods.

The Task Force was made up of four members who had no connection to Everett, led by Sam Tyler, the former director of the Boston Municipal Finance Bureau. Following the school budget crisis of 2018, Tyler and his colleagues were charged by Mayor Carlo DeMaria in February 2018 with taking a deep dive into what had happened, and how the City and School Department could do a better job with school finance.

Tyler said they met first on Feb. 15, 2018, and had nine meetings, with the last coming on June 13 of this year – all organized by former City Hall worker Omar Easy. While the report and recommendations were expected one year ago, Tyler said they quickly decided to expand their report to take an all-encompassing look at Everett’s finances and its characteristics.

“A good part of the time was spent dealing and working with former Supt. Foresteire and his team, and later with Interim Supt. Janice Gauthier and her team,” he said. “We had interviews with some School Committee members and we decided to take a harder and longer look, and a more comprehensive look, at the entirety of the City’s finances for five years.”

He also said they worked independently and were not interfered with at all.

“The Task Force worked wholly independent,” he said. “We determined the scope and had access to information about revenues and to City and School officials and employees. The mayor was hands-off…These four members were chosen because they had no prior involvement with Everett so they could produce a thorough and objective report.”

That report produced nine recommendations, with two of them not related to the School Department. As previously reported in the Independent, the key issue for the 2018 budget meltdown was that the School Department hired 97 employees after the budget had been set and without a funding source identified to pay for them.

Part of the problem was that historically the schools did not participate in the internal controls set up by the City’s finance office. Those controls do not allow for anyone to be hired and added to the payroll without identifying a funding source. The schools did not have those controls, but the first and most critical recommendation by the Task Force was to make sure the schools participated in the City’s systems.

Another recommendations dealt with hiring someone to interface between the City and the School Department on Budget issues, also serving as an expert on education funding initiatives at the state level.

“It just makes up too big a portion of the City’s finances to not have someone there dealing with this in an expert way all the time,” said Tyler.

Said Councilor Anthony DiPierro, “I would say we move ahead quite briskly on this and I think we should call a meeting of the School Finance Review Committee as soon as possible. I have always said the School Department and City Hall shouldn’t operate as separate entities. I’m happy to see that is one area this report addresses in trying to bring them together.”

Many of the other recommendations had to do with the School Committee.

Member David Ela said he was very upset in reading the repot because it was hard to believe that so many people were hired outside of the knowledge of the School Committee.

“That’s probably what upset me the most about this report – being unaware of the 65 and 32 employees hired after we approved the budget,” he said. “I will take responsibility, but I didn’t have the information or knowledge. It’s important we are moving in the right direction. We’ve had great meetings with the mayor and CFO Eric Demas. We will have ongoing collaboration with them…Things don’t happen overnight. We’ll review these and see where we are in one year. That’s a good goal for us.”

He also said the only information they had was the “burn rate,” which is a calculation of how fast the school budget is being spent. He said they were about two weeks away from learning of the new hires from September via the December burn rate.

“We need better tools,” he added.

School Committeeman Frank Parker said they will be moving to start working on the recommendations as soon as the Sept. 16 meeting, where one of the recommendations will be implemented. That one deals with making sure the entire School Committee is participating in the budgeting process, rather than just three members on the Finance Committee.

“In the past, most members attended one or more meetings, but I will propose at the Sept. 16 meeting to create a new committee – the Committee on Budget – that will be made up of the whole School Committee,” he said. “That’s in the works.”

He said time will be of the essence, and most members of the School Committee had positive reactions to the report.

“We’re going to move quickly on this,” he said. “There have already been conversations. I think most of the recommendations are seen as reasonable and attainable in a short period of time. The one recommendation about a finance position at City Hall is out of our hands. Personally, I’d rather see a consultant in that position rather than a full-time employee though.”

Tyler said he and the Task Force believe that the recommendations should be seriously considered and should be implemented within a year.

“We hope these are given a chance,” he said. “We think the nine recommendations of the Task Force should be reviewed by the School Finance Review Committee a year from now to determine whether the recommendations have been implemented or not,” he said. “If not, why not, and if implemented, have they made a difference.”

City Councilor Wayne Matewsky said he felt like the report contained things he’d been hoping to hear for many years.

“This is a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I’ve been here many years and this is so refreshing.”

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