EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 6, 2013

Board to pick school finance chief tonight

Finalists include woman fired in Wellesley finance scandal

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — A former school business manager in Wellesley who was fired following a scandal and a retired administrator the School Department has been using as a consultant are vying to be the district’s interim finance chief.

The School Committee is scheduled to publicly interview and possibly offer the job to one of the candidates tonight, following a public hearing on the proposed school budget for next year. The hearing will be at 6 p.m. in City Hall.

It is unclear what what the interim director will be paid, but outgoing Business manager Kara Kosmes made $95,000 per year overseeing Haverhill school spending.

The business manager position is set to open July 1 when Kosmes, Haverhill’s longtime assistant superintendent for finance and operations, leaves for a similar job at Whittier Regional Technical High School.

The candidates to replace Kosmes are Ruth Quinn Berdell and Leighton O’Connor.

According to published reports, Berdell was fired last year after 26 years with Wellesley public schools. She was let go after it was discovered the business office had failed to collect $160,000 in school lunch fees and an audit showed there were few written protocols and poor oversight of the district’s finances.

Berdell of Ashland eventually sued Wellesley’s former superintendent and its School Committee chairman over her termination, alleging defamation and a conspiracy to make her the scapegoat for problems in the school system.

O’Connor, who retired in 2008 as business manager for a school district in Maine, has worked as a budget consultant for Haverhill schools for the past three years. Haverhill Superintendent James Scully said O’Connor was Lawrence’s administration and finance director from 1988 to 1998 when Scully was superintendent there.

Scully said he hired O’Connor as a consultant for Haverhill schools three years ago to analyze the budget at Silver Hill Horace Mann School, after complaints Haverhill was not giving the city-funded charter school the amount of money that it was entitled to. Scully said he has used O’Connor as a financial consultant every year since then as “another pair of eyes” to ensure year-to-year budget consistency and to monitor spending in the school district. Scully estimated O’Connor has been paid $50,000 to $70,000 annually as a consultant here.

Scully said he believes both candidates are “capable and qualified” and that he would be happy to see either one offered the job. Scully noted O’Connor is not certified as a school business manger in Massachusetts, but said he is highly regarded and has plenty of experience. Scully said O’Connor came to his attention in Lawrence, after a firm the city hired to find the district a top financial administrator recommended O’Connor for the job. O’Connor was also a finance director for the Concord, N.H., school district from 2005 to 2007, according to his resume.

“The main thing is we need to fill this position right away,” Scully said, noting his failed attempt to see another highly qualified candidate appointed to the interim finance position last month. “I want the School Committee to meet them both and given me their opinion,” Scully said of Berdell and O’Connor.

David Jack, a retired Amesbury school superintendent, was on track for the position until he unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy last month. Jack’s decision came after Scully told the School Committee he planned to hire Jack, but the committee refused to approve the appointment until it could meet Jack and question him.

A few days later, Jack sent Scully an email withdrawing his candidacy.

“Given the initial reception of your idea by the School Committee, I think that I am going to withdraw any interest into that position,” the email said.

School Committee member Scott Wood said he expects the committee to chose one of the candidates following tonight’s interviews. After that, Wood said it will be up to Scully to negotiate a contract with the winner and then send it back to the committee for final approval.

“I agree with the superintendent that we can’t be without a business manager, so it makes sense for us to try to get this done (tonight),” Wood said.