BOSTON — The Massachusetts Senate has unanimously passed legislation aimed at preventing fraud and financial mismanagement at education collaboratives, months after reports of abuses at a Merrimack Valley educational collaborative raised the ire of state lawmakers and taxpayers.
The bill passed Tuesday, which now moves to the House, will impose new accountability standards on educational collaboratives, which provide regional services and special education programs to school districts around the state.
Last summer, media reports and a review by Inspector General Greg Sullivan uncovered financial malfeasance and salary double-dipping at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative based in Lowell.
The inspector general accused former director John Barranco of using his control of the agency and the related non-profit Merrimack Education Center to divert $11.5 million in public funding to the center to boost his pay and that of a handful of top executives with inflated salaries and bonuses, as well as using the center's credit card to charge more than $50,000 in personal expenses.
"All of us in this chamber, I don't think I overreach, when I say we were deeply angered," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who helped craft the bill as chair of the Joint Committee on Education. "These reports revealed deliberate misuse of taxpayer dollars. In other cases, the reports showed a lack of oversight. This bill confronts both of those problems."
Under the bill, the collaboratives will be required to file annual reports, and be subjected to reviews every six years. The bill also requires collaborative boards of directors to appoint a treasurer who is not a member of the board or an employee of the collaborative, and requires them to maintain financial accounting systems. It authorizes the state education department, auditor and department of revenue to periodically audit or review the records of every education collaborative.
During debate, senators said the new accountability measures would send a message to all would-be abusers of public funds.
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre, ticked off a list of items Barranco is alleged to have purchased with state money, including expensive shoes, tickets to the Kentucky Derby, 32 items of men's clothing, and purchases from Pottery Barn which he sent to his children and signed "love Dad," Brewer said.
Before passing the bill, the Senate passed a handful of amendments including one that requires the education collaboratives to appear before local school committees to detail their financials and programs.
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, whose districts includes schools affected by the Merrimack Education Collaborative scandal, said some school officials felt "shut out," and want the education collaboratives to be accountable to them.
"It is very important that, with money being so tight, we make these collaboratives explain and answer questions about what they are spending money on," Finegold said.
Under the bill, collaboratives will be managed by a board with one person appointed annually by each school committee, plus one member appointed by the education commissioner. It also prohibits board members from receiving a salary and from serving in any official capacity at a related non-profit organization. The Senate passed an amendment that allows someone to volunteer at non-profits while working at collaboratives.
More than 75 percent of Massachusetts' school districts rely on educational collaboratives for children with special education needs.
They were originally formed in 1974.