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Wellesley parents meet with school panel about problems

Wellesley Police Department

Gino Lister is accused of stealing school computers.

More than 40 parents turned out last week for an open forum with the Wellesley School Committee to ask questions about problems plaguing the school system, from bookkeeping issues and employee background checks to health code violations in the cafeterias.

“Help me feel comfortable my kid is safe,’’ said Wellesley parent Paul Baier, whose creation of the Facebook page ConcernedParentsofWellesley was the catalyst for the meeting Wednesday night. School Committee chairwoman Suzy Littlefield called the session “unprecedented.’’

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Baier was referring to the October arrest of Gino Lister, a Wellesley Middle School custodian accused of stealing more than $20,000 worth of Apple computers from the school. It later turned out that Lister had a prior record of arrests.

Since then, the School Committee has written a revised policy for screening job applicants and employees that would expand the scope of individuals subject to Criminal Offender Record Information reports. The change also would an option for consulting with police on interpreting the reports, and allow the school district to go directly to the courts for information.

The school board is taking public feedback on the new policy, and is scheduled to vote on whether to adopt it Tuesday.

Lister, 35, was charged in 1998 with assault and battery, and in 2000 with unarmed robbery, breaking and entering, and larceny over $250, according to Framingham District Court records. All of the charges were continued without a finding and eventually dismissed.

“Are there five more people like Lister on the payroll?’’ Baier asked the board last week. He requested that new background checks be conducted on all school employees to doublecheck that the administration had not missed anyone.

‘It might be reasonable to look at the ones that came back’ with any charges.

Ilissa Povich School Committee member, on employee background checks
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Baier thought his child was safe, “and then Lister slipped through,’’ he said. “That’s the underlying angst.’’

Committee member Ilissa Povich said that they had not anticipated conducting new CORI checks, but that “it might be reasonable to look at the ones that came back’’ with any charges on them. The School Committee has previously remarked on how confusing the CORI reports can be.

New CORI reports are conducted on all employees every three years, Povich said.

Franny Campbell, who was a Wellesley school cafeteria worker for 17 years before the district privatized its lunch program this fall, asked whether the district has seen any of the anticipated financial gain from its contract with its new food-service provider, Chartwells.

“We haven’t had a breakdown or analysis,’’ said Littlefield. “Certainly, there were some promises made.’’

Littlefield said that the School Committee will be looking at a breakdown of savings when it discusses whether to renew the company’s contract, which is for one year.

Campbell, who submitted a petition to the school board last month with more than 500 signatures calling for the ouster of Chartwells, again asked that the committee not continue the contract.

She also asked whether Chartwells was composting and recycling, as its contract stipulates it must.

“They are not composting at this point,’’ said Littlefield. “That is a major disappointment.’’ The company is recycling, she said.

“I would say they’re not upholding their contract,’’ said Campbell.

Chartwells has come under scrutiny from the town’s Health Department after food were found to be kept at improper temperatures during an inspection at the beginning of the school year. Since then, there have been several more alleged health code violations, including the discovery of mice in the middle and high school cafeterias.

“I have 17 years at the middle school,’’ said Campbell. “Hot food was hot. The temps were always up to par. Cold was cold. The kitchen was immaculate.’’

Littlefield said the School Committee would soon be deciding whether to continue the contract with Chartwells.

“Everything is open right now,’’ she said. “All options are on the table.’’

Problems in the business office also came up at the meeting.

Last spring, it was discovered that the business office had failed to collect $169,000 in school lunch accounts.

An audit triggered by the discovery revealed sloppy accounting practices in the business office, which was headed by business manager Ruth Quinn Berdell. She went on voluntary paid administrative leave in November. No misappropriation was uncovered.

Superintendent Bella Wong had tendered her resignation - effective at the end of the school year - less than two weeks before Berdell went on leave, citing “ongoing public concern over school operations protocols’’ that had undermined her capacity to advocate for the district.

Campbell asked whether the committee had followed up on the remaining uncollected lunch debt, which in October stood at more than $40,000.

Littlefield said the School Committee will receive a report at its meeting Tuesday night.

She also said that the committee is expecting the results of another audit of the business office, conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials, to be available at the meeting.

“That report will probably lead to new policies,’’ said committee member Diane Campbell.

Littlefield said that she thought Wednesday’s forum was a success. Several parents thanked her for holding it.

“We want to hear from you,’’ said Littlefield. “We’re always open. We live in the town, we’re here. We’re here to represent parents and nonparents.’’

It has been a rough fall, Littlefield said, but she is looking forward to a better spring.

“Maybe the solution is for us to listen a little harder,’’ she said.

Evan Allen can be reached at evannn524@gmail.com.
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