School Superintendent Bella Wong of Wellesley, whose administration began to unravel over uncollected lunch fees and a harsh audit of the business office, announced her resignation to parents and staff yesterday.
“It’s a hard decision, because I very much care about the district,’’ she said in an interview. “I felt that I had more work to do.’’
Wong, who spent six years as assistant superintendent and five as superintendent, will remain on the job through the end of the school year.
In letters to the community, Wong said that “ongoing public concern over school operational protocols’’ had put the School Department on the defensive and undermined her capacity to advocate effectively for the district.
Issues surrounding bookkeeping have been in the news since last spring, when it was discovered that the school business office had failed to collect about $169,000 worth of school lunch debt. Recently, the School Department came under fire for approving payments totaling about $100,000 to two employees to compensate them for unused vacation time.
Wong said that she hoped her resignation would allow everyone in the district to refocus and put their energy into passing next year’s budget and possibly seeking a tax increase.
“I have no qualms about it being the fair and right decision for the district,’’ she said. “It’s the fair and right decision for the district and therefore for myself.’’
Suzy Littlefield, chairwoman of the Wellesley School Committee, would not comment on whether Wong was asked to resign, but said there was no committee vote on it.
“We’re looking forward to moving in a positive direction and focusing back on education and the kids,’’ said Littlefield. “All these events have taken away focus from education and kids.’’
After last spring’s discovery of the lunch money issues, an independent audit released in September showed a pattern of sloppy bookkeeping in the business department, headed by business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell. The audit found a lack of “adequate monitoring or analytical procedures being applied to the management of the various revenue cycles of the schools.’’
The district is currently awaiting the results of another audit of the business department being conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials. The results should be in next month, said Wong.
“The School Committee is actively pursuing improvements in the business office,’’ Littlefield said.
Berdell, who was owed $86,000 for vacation accrued over 26 years, is receiving half the money this year and the other half next year, Littlefield said. Now, employees are limited in how much they can roll over from one year to the next, but Berdell was grandfathered under an old policy.
Another employee received about $15,000 in accrued vacation, Wong said.
Littlefield said that since Wong had only been superintendent for five years, she was not solely responsible for the employees accruing so much unused vacation time.
The district was also in the news last month when a janitor at Wellesley Middle School was arrested on charges that he stole more than $20,000 worth of Apple computer products and student-crafted jewelry from the facility in recent months. Since then, questions have arisen over whether an adequate background check had been performed before hiring him.
“It’s been a rough few months,’’ said Littlefield. “Support for the schools has been eroding over the last few months.’’
Wong said that she had hoped to work past the negative issues, but that they had ultimately made it hard to move forward productively.
“I have to accept the reality that I haven’t been able to dissipate that concern that persists,’’ she said. “I really want the community to focus on what’s important about the educational mission for the benefit of the students.’’
Littlefield said that Wong was acting in the best interest of the district.
“Bella Wong has served the Wellesley school community for 11 years and demonstrated her tireless dedication to the Wellesley educational system,’’ Littlefield said. “The School Committee understands Bella’s reasoning for resigning at this time and appreciates that she has given the town plenty of time to begin the search for a new superintendent next year.’’
The School Committee will meet Tuesday to begin the search for a new superintendent, Littlefield said. It will be “a very public process.’’