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Massachusetts Senate adopts checks on education collaboratives

Abuses reported at collaboratives

The state Senate unanimously passed legislation yesterday aimed at preventing fraud and financial mismanagement at educational collaboratives, months after reports of abuses at a Merrimack Valley educational collaborative raised the ire of state lawmakers and taxpayers.

The bill, which now moves to the House, will impose new accountability standards on educational collaboratives, which provide regional services and special education programs to school districts in several municipalities.

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Last summer, news reports and a review by Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan uncovered financial malfeasance and salary double-dipping at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative.

The inspector general accused John Barranco, former director, of using his control of the agency and the Merrimack Education Center, a related nonprofit agency, to divert $11.5 million in public funding to the center to boost his pay and that of a handful of top executives with inflated salaries and bonuses, as well as using the center’s credit card to charge more than $50,000 in personal expenses.

“All of us in this chamber - I don’t think I overreach when I say we were deeply angered,’’ said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, who helped craft the bill as chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education. “These reports revealed deliberate misuse of taxpayer dollars. In other cases, the reports showed a lack of oversight. This bill confronts both of those problems.’’

Under the bill, the collaboratives will be required to file annual reports and be subject to review every six years. The bill also requires a collaborative’s board of directors to appoint a treasurer who is not a member of the board or an employee of the collaborative and requires them to maintain financial accounting systems.

It authorizes the state Education Department, state auditor, and the Department of Revenue to periodically audit or review the records of every educational collaborative.

During debate, senators said the new accountability measures would send a message to all would-be abusers of public funds.

Senator Stephen Brewer, Ways and Means Committee chairman and Democrat of Barre, ticked off a list of items Barranco allegedly purchased with state money, including expensive shoes, tickets to the Kentucky Derby, 32 items of men’s clothing, and purchases from Pottery Barn that he sent to his children and signed “love, Dad.’’

Before passing the bill, the Senate passed a handful of amendments, including one that requires the educational collaboratives to appear before local school committees to detail their financials and programs.

Under the bill, collaboratives will be managed by a board with one person appointed annually by each school committee, plus one member appointed by the education commissioner.

It also prohibits board members from receiving a salary and from serving in any official capacity at a related nonprofit. The Senate passed an amendment that allows someone to volunteer at nonprofits while working at collaboratives.

Stephen Theall, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives, praised the legislation.

“This is a positive step for educational collaboratives, for the thousands of families of special needs children across Massachusetts who depend on these vital services, and for the school districts who have come to rely on collaboratives for needed professional development and cost savings in a number of areas,’’ his statement said.

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