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Parents cite loss of confidence in Wellesley schools

Board may host public forums

Tempers flared at a Wellesley School Committee meeting last week as some residents spoke of collapsing confidence in the public schools, while others called for patience as the district searches for a new superintendent.

“I think I represent a growing set of parents who are concerned about the administrative issues,’’ said Paul Baier, parent of an eighth-grader and the creator of a Facebook page, ConcernedParentsofWellesley, for residents asking for answers from the beleaguered district. “I encourage you not to underestimate the speed with which trust is evaporating right now.’’

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He asked that the School Committee host two 90-minute open forums to give residents a chance to ask questions about the recent problems in the schools, which include accounting issues in the business office, questions about the school’s background check procedures, and health code violations in the cafeterias.

Other residents echoed his concerns at the meeting Tuesday night, but said the School Committee was not the problem.

“Yes, I am very disappointed at the administrative issues that have surfaced,’’ said Alissa Keene, who has two children attending Wellesley High. “But before we start the attack on the School Committee, let’s ask ourselves these questions: Are there problems? Yes. Are they fixable? Yes. Are there steps being taken to fix them? Yes.

“I’d like to ask people to give the School Committee time to fix the issues.’’

The school district came under fire last spring when it was discovered that the business office, had failed to collect about $169,000 worth of school lunch fees. A subsequent audit found sloppy accounting in the office, which was overseen at the time by business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell. No misappropriations were discovered.

‘I encourage you not to underestimate the speed with which trust is evaporating right now.’

Paul Baier, Wellesley parent addressing School Committee
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Last month, Superintendent Bella Wong announced she would be resigning her position at the end of the school year, and a little more than a week later Berdell went on voluntary paid administrative leave.

“We as the School Committee acknowledge that the school district has had a rough few months,’’ chairwoman Suzy Littlefield said at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting. “Do not doubt for a minute that the five of us each take these issues very seriously.’’

Littlefield said that she is definitely on board with organizing open forums. She said she hopes to have one before the holidays.

The department’s background check process came under scrutiny after a custodian at the middle school, Gino Lister, was arrested in October for allegedly stealing more than $20,000 worth of Apple products and student-crafted jewelry.

Lister, 35, had been charged in 1998 with assault and battery, and in 2000 with unarmed robbery, breaking and entering in the nighttime, and larceny over $250, according to Framingham District Court documents. Both sets of charges were continued without a finding and eventually dismissed.

Littlefield said that at the Dec. 20 School Committee meeting, the board will discuss revising the background check system.

The school district has also faced harsh criticism for its approval of payments totaling about $100,000 to two employees for unused vacation time. Berdell was owed $86,000, which she will receive over a two-year period, said Wong.

Most recently, the food service operation has been criticized for health violations in the school cafeterias, which are being run by a private company, Chartwells. The problems include a rodent infestation at the middle and high schools that has been a problem all fall, according to Wong.

At last week’s meeting, Wong said that the school district had switched its pest-control vendor and has stepped up the frequency of monitoring and trapping. She said there is optimism that the new approach would solve the problem.

Last week, a group of former cafeteria workers began circulating a petition asking the school district not to renew Chartwells’s contract for next year. Franny Campbell, who was a cafeteria worker for 17 years until the district hired the outside contractor starting this fall, said she hopes to gather at least 500 signatures from Wellesley residents.

Littlefield said that a “nasty tone’’ had crept into the recent discussions around the schools, and asked that residents be civil.

One Wellesley resident, Kate Kane Leach, demanded to know why Berdell was still being paid, and accused the School Committee of “protecting the people who work for the system’’ instead of working toward transparency and accountability.

Some residents worried that the rising anger directed at the schools would make it hard to attract a new superintendent.

“Nobody will apply for this job with any merit and quality if they do not feel they are going to be supported by this community,’’ said Julia de Peyster. “I just ask that the community not come out with a voice of attack, and not come out with a voice of negativity that will directly impact this search for Bella’s replacement.’’

Julianne Ivey, a board member of Committee 21, a nonpartisan group that supports the schools, said in an interview that the fiery tone of the discussion is ultimately counterproductive.

She said that the School Committee was moving in the right direction to try to rebuild the community’s trust by starting the search for a new superintendent.

“I think they’re only going to be able to continue moving in the right direction if the town continues to support them,’’ she said.

School Committee member Ilissa Povich said that the panel issued its request for proposals yesterday for a consultant to help with the superintendent search. Littlefield has said that the board hopes to have a new superintendent in place by July 1.

The School Committee is still waiting on the results of another audit of the business department being conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials. The results, Littlefield said, should be in soon.

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