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Barbara Anderson column raises questions about Village School construction process

June 5, 2011

Noting that last year Marblehead voters defeated all ten overrides on the ballot [Salem News column, Friday, June 3, 2011], Ms. Anderson takes note that many of those questions are, again, back on the ballot for this year’s vote on June 14. She notes that Jack Buba, a leader in the campaign to defeat the overrides last year, has asked the school committee about the expenditures during the construction of the renovation project at the Village School. The Town Meeting authorization “was for replacing an old boiler and other related repairs needed for various reasons including ‘fire and safety.'” The amount was $21.8 million. Ms. Anderson reminds voters that, ” We were told that we could expect 40 percent reimbursement from the state through the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for construction costs.” Which would mean that Marblehead’s bill would be $11,016,493, and the state would pick up the rest. Jack Buba states, however, that “change orders” authorized by someone amounted to $3.5 million and he wants to know who authorized these changes and what they were for. When the questions were put to the School Committee things got “testy.” Suddenly the change order amount jumped to $5.4 million. Buba was able to obtain a public letter from the MSBA to former superintendent Paul Dulac which confirmed the amount and stated that most of the change order did not qualify for state reimbursement, meaning they were not within the original specifications of the project’s application for reimbursement, and apparently not bid competitively. The MSBA is refusing to “participate in any of the … changes that exceeded the approved contingency amount,” as reported in the column. If the resulting $4.3 million is disavowed for reimbursement, Marblehead will have to pay 100 percent.

Ms. Anderson paints a picture of what could have happened: the project was completed under-budget and the building committee decided to “spend the leftover money on all kinds of stuff without asking anyone, hoping they’d slip this past the MSBA approval process for reimbursement.”  She suggests that the nonessential expenditures for “landscaping, a nice kitchen and carpeting” could have been foregone and the money ($5.4 million) applied to the next building project by Town Meeting. This would have amounted to 20 percent of the current $25.4 million being requested of voters now for the new Glover School.

Ms. Anderson writes that all of this was kept a secret. She praises a watchful MSBA for its vigilant oversight and also gives kudos to Mr. Buba, “who was removed by selectmen from the Town Finance Committee because he asked too many questions.” She notes that perhaps the lack of questions in the process can explain why the selectmen knew nothing of what was going on. She wraps up, “So, now it’s up to Marblehead voters to decide if they can trust these clueless selectmen and the now-apologetic School Committee with more of their tax dollars than the Prop 2½ levy limit already allows.”

Here is the link to her full column.
Also, here is a link to the Citizens for Limited Taxation (CLT) page on this issue with most of the original letters and documents involved in the case at the bottom of the page, so you can read them for yourself.

CLOSING OPINION. If there is some illegal or improper activity in the Village School renovation/building process, if funds were actually misused and the process circumvented in any way, then the citizens of Marblehead deserve to know the full truth, no matter who is or was involved. Let the chips fall where they may. If there is a reasonable explanation then the Town should express it forthwith and support it with incontrovertible evidence. To justify gaming the system on technicalities is not the answer. There is a lot at stake. Trust for one thing. An informed vote on June 14 for another.

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