Hostile Situation : After Crying Poor Last Fall, School Department Returns $3.2 Million Surplus

In most every case, municipal finance officers love surpluses.

They don’t happen often.

But a surplus coming from the School Department this summer isn’t being greeted with open arms by the City’s Chief Financial Officer Eric Demas. In fact, he’s calling the $3.2 million surplus and the circumstances surrounding it – that being a number of nasty, public meetings last fall – disgusting and irresponsible.

“It is typically a positive situation when a department succeeds in its objectives and returns appropriations that were saved through efficiencies and cost saving measures,” said Demas. “Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those situations…For the former superintendent (Fred Foresteire) to create the hostile situation he did regarding the $2.5 million that the City received from the state through the budget process is just unfathomable. The $3.2 million coming back just shows how irresponsible it was to request that money and it came at the expense of the taxpayers and created a hostile situation the City didn’t need.

“Students and faculty were disgustingly used as pawns and the mayor was under constant attack and for what?” he asked. “He just wanted to make sure taxpayer money wasn’t being spent recklessly.”

And apparently it was, he said, by former Supt. Fred Foresteire.

“Somebody needs to say it,” he said. “The narrative up here last fall was completely irresponsible and untrue…It was all at the hands of the former superintendent. He had too much control.”

The School Department budget has been the center of controversy for the past two years, in particular, over fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019. After a horrendous and very pubic fight between Foresteire, the City and mayor during the 2018 budget debacle, there was an effort to work together in collaboration, Demas said, for the 2019 budget.

As part of that, Demas said the City agreed to fund the schools at $6.5 million above what was required. The condition was that if any extra state money came in, it would stay at City Hall. With no guarantees that state money would become available via the State Budget, the City had agreed to guarantee the extra money at the $6.5 million price tag. The hope was that by guaranteeing the money, it would create a more stable and transparent School Department budget.

Then, in July of 2018, State Sen. Sal DiDomenico and State Rep. Joe McGonagle reported that the State Budget was going to deliver an extra $2.5 million to the City for school funding.

Demas said that despite their earlier agreement on additional monies coming in, not a day had passed before the $2.5 million announcement than former Supt. Fred Foresteire moved to try to get the money for the schools.

That led to another epic battle that roped in Sen. DiDomenico, the School Finance Review Commission and another very nasty public meeting at the City Council – all with the goal of getting the $2.5 million over to the School Department despite earlier agreements to the contrary, Demas said.

Former Supt. Fred Foresteire at the time said it was critical to get that money to hire additional personnel and teachers immediately.

The meeting featured angry parents, irate students, fed up faculty, threats to the mayor, harsh words for the City Council and even very demeaning comments to the mayor’s family at City Hall.

Demas said he hasn’t spoken about it before, but he witnessed the mayor’s daughter being castigated that night in the hallway of City Hall by other students who had been told their favorite teachers would be cut because of Mayor DeMaria.

“That night, I even witness students harassing, ridiculing and making derogatory comments to the mayor’s high school daughter at City Hall because they thought they would lose their favorite teacher due to the mayor’s actions regarding the funding,” he said. “The former superintendent had given instructions to teachers to tell students…I was completely disgusted. It wasn’t fair and wasn’t necessary because it was all untrue. It was all due to the actions of the former superintendent.”

In the end, on that night after a great deal of acrimony, the Council did agree to vote to send the $2.5 million to the School Department.

Now, after the end of the budget cycle on July 1, and the books having been fully closed, Demas said his disgust has come full circle in learning that the schools – who so vehemently cried poor last fall – actually have a multi-million dollar surplus they cannot spend.

“They completed all the hiring they wanted to, they adjusted class sizes how they wanted, and still had $3.2 million left over,” Demas said. “Where does that happen? Even if they hadn’t received the $2.5 million, they would have still come back with a surplus of $700,000. It’s completely inappropriate considering the turmoil it cased with the parents and students.”

Looking forward, Demas said there is a new spirit of cooperation at the School Department with Interim Supt. Janice Gauthier. He said internal controls have been put in place to ensure these things don’t happen again, and the Blue Ribbon Task Force has now issued its report with recommendations to strengthen school finance in Everett.

“Janice Gauthier has been a breath of fresh air,” he said. “The City and schools are working together in a collaborative effort to do our job for the residents of this community. I’m very encouraged. I hope whomever the School Committee appoints as the new superintendent, that individual will continue on the path we’re currently on.”

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