BROCKTON — Following the shocking discovery of a $14 million shortfall in last fiscal year’s $221 million budget just days before the start of a new school year, the Brockton School Committee voted Friday to launch an independent investigation of the deficit.
The multimillion dollar budget hole comes as district officials already were wrestling with a $18 million shortfall in the current fiscal year’s $229 million that led to more than 100 employees being let go and has left some parents and administrators worried that further cuts would hurt students.
At an emergency meeting at Brockton High School Friday afternoon, committee members also appointed a new acting superintendent after announcing just one night before that the district’s current leader would go on extended medical leave. In a 7 to 1 vote, they named Deputy Superintendent of Operations James Cobbs to the role.
The committee’s chair, vice chair, and two additional committee members will launch the third-party audit of the $14.4 million deficit in consultation with legal counsel. They will begin the search process for a firm specializing in independent financial audits, and their own role in the process will be more clearly defined during a School Committee meeting on Wednesday, according to school officials.
Mayor Robert Sullivan revealed the surprise shortfall late Thursday night after meeting for four hours behind closed doors with the rest of the School Committee. Sullivan, who chairs the School Committee, also announced Superintendent Mike Thomas would be out on extended medical leave.
“We want to make sure there is a smooth transition for the first day of opening school next Wednesday,” Sullivan said at the outset of Friday’s meeting.
The Globe was unable to reach Thomas for comment.
In an interview with WCBV-TV, Thomas took responsibility for the deficit, but he emphasized that there was “no mismanagement, there’s no funds missing.”
“When the budget’s overspent, it’s on me as the superintendent of schools, and I understand that and fully accept responsibility for that,” Thomas told the station. “[If] I end up losing my job, I feel good about what I’ve done for the kids of Brockton and their families.”
Asked why the overspending was not reported earlier, Thomas said “things happen quickly,” but a more complete timeline will come during the investigation.
Brockton City Councilor At-Large Winthrop Farwell Jr., a former mayor and School Committee member, said the city’s primary concern now is finding the money needed to satisfy any outstanding debts from the 2023 fiscal year, which ended on June 30.
Farwell said he was troubled by the fact that the School Committee’s audit would include the committee’s chair — Sullivan — vice chair, and two others, when the committee had failed to properly oversee the budget. He said he and fellow council members would be calling for a second audit by the state or an independent auditor that doesn’t include the School Committee.
”Seven people were elected from seven different wards to oversee the superintendent, the school budget, and all of the school properties and facilities. And those seven people apparently either neglected to monitor spending or they don’t have the internal financial controls in place,” Farwell said. “And that is very troubling.”
Brockton is among many districts across the country facing tough financial constraints as student populations decline and pandemic-era federal aid comes to an end. In Brockton, more than 80 percent of the district’s 14,900 students are children of color and three in four come from low-income families.
And this fall, in a highly unprecedented move, Thomas, the superintendent, was set to assume the role of interim principal of Brockton High School — the state’s largest high school with 3,700 students — in addition to his duties running the wider school system. Per state law, Cobbs will now have to hire an acting principal of the high school, according to district spokesperson Jessica Silva-Hodges.
Mystified parents, students, and community members packed Friday’s School Committee meeting at the Little Theatre in Brockton High School. Many of them returned to the high school from the previous night, where they waited for hours in the parking lot for the committee’s private meeting to end, galvanized by unfounded social media rumors about the shortfall. And several were outraged the public portion of the meeting ended without an opportunity for citizen comment.
“I’m most upset because they sit there and they talk in quiet. They work for us,” said Brockton resident Lori Mason. “We have every right to hear what they have to say. They need to explain themselves.”
Several Brocktonians expressed their disappointment that suspicion appears to have fallen on Thomas, the superintendent, a longtime Brockton educator and graduate of Brockton High School. A Brockton native who began his career in the district as a physical education teacher, Thomas was known as an accessible and engaged community leader with an open-door policy for students and families.
“He cared,” said Brockton parent Michele Harris. “He was the heart of the Brockton Public School system.”
John C. Williams, a longtime youth mentor who is running against Sullivan for mayor, said blame for the deficit should extend far beyond the superintendent.
“It looks like they’re looking to dump this whole bag in [Thomas’s] lap, which is virtually impossible when the mayor is the head of the School Committee and [the budget has] gone through checks and balances enough that somebody should have caught this,” Williams said.
Thomas is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed May 31 in Plymouth County Superior Court alleging that in 2021, he pressured school police officials to hire an unqualified candidate as an officer as a political favor.
The plaintiff, executive school police officer Daniel Vaughn, claims in court filings that when he and his boss refused to hire the applicant, they were retaliated against, while the applicant was given the job.
Vaughn claims he then reviewed camera footage and found the officer, Neusa Semedo, frequently arrived later and left earlier than she claimed on her payroll sheet, and sometimes wasn’t seen at her post at all. But when he reported the “time theft,” Vaughn claims he was subjected to unwarranted investigations, demoted, and barred from entering the school campus.
He is now on medical leave, his attorney Timothy Burke said. Burke said his client filed a whistleblower notice with the city prior to filing the lawsuits, but the city did not attempt to investigate.
”Obviously they have an obligation to do so when serious allegations of this nature have been brought to their attention,” Burke said, and added that his client also has not been interviewed by any state or federal authority over the allegations.
Attorney Lenny Kesten, who is representing Thomas and the city, said the city is “early in the process and still looking at everything.”
”The facts will come out through the process and we’re confident we’ll prevail,” Kesten said.
Attorneys for Semedo and the third defendant in the case, School Committee member Anthony Rodrigues, denied any wrongdoing in court filings.
Globe Correspondent Daniel Kool contributed to this report.