GOP, Dems trade barbs on BOE

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

The Republicans on the Board of Education are calling the $4.5 million deficit over the past two budget cycles “willful negligence.”

The remaining Board of Education members, who are all Democrats, have accused the GOP caucus of playing politics.

Last Friday, the Republican caucus (Jeff Caggiano, Jennifer Dube, and David Scott) issued a written statement as a prelude to this past Tuesday’s Joint Board meeting, in which a report of a forensic audit that determines how the schools ran $4.5 million in the red over the past two budget years was to be presented.

“Against the request of the auditors, Tom O’Brien and others have been characterizing the report publicly,” said the GOP caucus. “Taxpayers may not remember that the audit was conducted due to the $4.5 million that were overspent in the past two budget cycles. However, with over 50 years of combined service in our BOE leadership team are we to really believe that Chris Wilson, Karen Vibert, and Tom O’Brien were not aware of ‘accounting mistakes caused by overruns in Special Education?’ Furthermore, outside of this audit, the public is not privy to what has happened behind the scenes and what we have witnessed at the BOE for the past two years.”

Characterizing themselves in their written statement as the “Board of Education,” –chair Christopher Wilson, vice chair Karen Vibert, chairman of the personnel committee Tom O’Brien, chairman of property committee Karen Hintz, chairman of policy committee Tina Taylor, and commissioner Joe Grabowski—all Democrats called the comments in the GOP statement “outlandish accusations.”

“We are shocked and saddened by the Republican Board of Education commissioners… continued publicity seeking, which appears to be boundless. Their leader, Mr. Caggiano, twists facts, makes nasty personal attacks, runs to the media to air his version of a story and then has the gall to accuse his Democratic counterparts of politicking. It’s mind boggling.”

The Democrats said, “Tom O’Brien, Karen Vibert and Chris Wilson do have over 50 years of combined public service on the Board of Education, and in that time we have never seen such vicious attacks, such self-serving posturing, or such divisive political behavior. All nine members of the Board of Education voted on a set of goals, which include working to close the achievement gap and securing necessary funding. Their divisive actions do nothing to advance these goals.”

“Our job as Board of Education Commissioners is to advocate for education,” the Democrats said.

The Democrats wrote: “Mr. Caggiano consistently flouts board policy by pushing his agenda in the media. It would appear that his role as chair of the Republican Town Committee takes precedent over his commitment to the education of Bristol’s students.”

The Republicans’ statement said: “We saw staged public protests with heavy media coverage of possible school closings. However, we are still debating a feasibility study that the city asked for two years ago, that will help us determine potential school closings.”

“Staged public protests? By whom?,” responded the remaining BOE members. “We are debating a feasibility study that was funded a year ago, not two years ago and we couldn’t execute it until the city provided the funding.  The study was completed two months ago. Where does he stand on closing schools? You can’t have it both ways, but he (Caggiano) often tries, first declaring his support for an arts magnet at Memorial Boulevard and then arguing against spending any money for it.”

The Republicans also wrote: “The BOE chair (Wilson) alerted the (Bristol Federation of Teachers) and media before notifying remaining BOE members about proposed cuts to extra-curricular programs on the eve of a budget workshop.”

“Of course,” the GOP caucus said, “these cuts were proposed ‘due to underfunding,’ but in a dramatic turn of events Tom O’Brien thankfully reversed course after public/media backlash, and blamed the ‘mistake’ on the superintendent at the time.”

The Democrats countered, “We asked the then-superintendent (Ellen Solek) to recommend some potential cuts. She did. She notified the BFT, social media did the rest. Tom O’Brien, like many other board members, objected to the cuts chosen and they were not pursued.”

“We struggle to understand how the RTC chair (Caggiano) has somehow managed to turn this into an evil plot,” the congregate Democrats said. “First Mr. Wilson is in cahoots with Mr. O’Brien, then he’s accused of excluding him? Which is it? Truthfully, neither.

“The leadership team also staged public comment from members of their own political party at a budget hearing, which is rarely attended by the public,” said the GOP. “At that same meeting, they forced a premature vote against normal procedure. It was the only second budget hearing of a three scheduled. The vote on our 2017/18 Budget Proposal that was willfully lacking detail, including any baseline accounting of the current year’s expenses, passed along party lines.”

“Mr. Caggiano, as RTC chair, notifies his membership of important meetings and votes and invites them to come in support and make a good showing,” said the Democrats. “Is it only a bad thing if a Democrat shows up?”

The Republicans said in their statement, “We ask the public to pay attention to this audit and see if it confirms what we have seen behind the scenes that our leaders went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that it appeared that ‘Our schools have been underfunded for years.’”

“We are encouraged this year that we are seeing a true accounting of expenses and applaud the dramatic increase of transparency in our budget process,” said the BOE Republicans. “Previous deception and outright lies by this leadership team, along with clear partisan politicking, will tarnish the work of this board for some time to come, and yet we will move forward and continue to do the right thing for families and children in this district.”

“This year, we enjoyed a very good budget presentation by our superintendent (Sue Moreau) and her team,” said the Democrats on the BOE. “She broke the budget down into small, digestible chunks, but it is still the same budget we see every year. We’re happy the Republican caucus was able to understand it.”

“Our new business manager also publicly stated that several budget lines have been historically underfunded,” said the Democrats.

“How do the Republicans refute that Special Education budget overruns are the cause of the deficit?,” said the Democrats. “In (20)15 – 16, the $2.1 million was recognized early in the fiscal year and reported to the Board of Finance each month. It was funded with a small carryover and the Excess Cost Grant from the State, which statutorily we should have been receiving for years but the City had held the funds. In ‘16 – ‘17, it was assumed that the increase in the Excess Cost Grant would offset the $2.4 million. It did not happen. In ‘17 – ‘18, we are projecting a $1.6 million overrun in Special Education costs which are not in the budget and will need to be funded by the city.”

The Democrats said, “We have been vocal in our questioning of the way previous business managers calculated special education costs and reimbursement, highlighting areas of concern. We have worked tirelessly to ensure that education funding from the state went to education.

“It is not possible to reduce the federally mandated Board of Education expenditures to offset the increases in cost which comprise the total overrun incurred in the last two years, and the $1.6 million deficit forecast for the current year,” said the Democrats. “The budget submitted by the Board of Education is only a proposal of needs for the school district. The process really begins when the Joint Board of Finance and City Council approve a specific amount.”

“Neither the Board of Finance nor the Board of Education has dealt with the significant increases in Special Education costs as they were identified, deciding to wait until the end of the fiscal year to fund the amounts that were not budgeted,” said the Democrats.

Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.