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That huge $ucking sound is coming from our schools

15 May

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

A financial crisis the likes of which Peabody probably hasn’t seen since the Great Depression may be looming, and much of it is the result of the mismanagement and shoddy leadership that has gone on in the department that eats up almost half of our municipal budget.

pvmhsHad to marvel the other day over reading how the Chairman of the School Committee, our Fearless Leader, our Mayor Ted Bettencourt asked that the proposed 2018 school budget be whacked by $2.7m. Interim Superintendent for Life Herbie Levine and the school committee had asked for a whopping $4m budget increase over FY2017, but the mayor said nyet, and instead said he would only allow for a $1.5m increase.

One wonders now if the Fiscally Conservative Teflon Ted is going to show up, and slash the friends and family plan he’s created with unnecessary salaries at City Hall. But, I digress . . .

Here it is Peabody, the major reason why your tax bill continues to go up, year after year for the past 14 years is because the school budget continues to go up year after year at an alarming rate.

Some of the recent annual increases can certainly be tied to the construction of the much-needed new Higgins Middle School. There’s also no avoiding the collectively bargained raises and increases in benefits due our teachers.

But a lot of the blame for these annual school budget increases fall on poor planning, poor decision making by our elected officials, and poor leadership.

Specifically, the biggest boondoggle Peabody has ever signed up for, also known as the Mega Voke, or more formally, Essex Tech, is a “gift” that keeps on giving for the Peabody Taxpayers.

Our assessment there is up a whopping $600,000 and closing in on $4m, and who’s to blame? Well, the Peabody City Councilors, of course, who created a large sucking sound in our city’s budget six years ago when they voted for this disaster with zero financial information or projections in front of them. All but three councilors at the time just said “yes,” because Rep Ted Speliotis came before them and started waving his arms and screaming how Peabody kids would be left behind, and how the school wouldn’t get done without the state being able to fleece Peabody’s taxpayers.

Now, and after thousands of construction lobbyist dollars have been poured into Slick Teddy S’s campaign coffers — rather than having our kids reap the benefits from what could have been a nifty and economical $10m renovation of our existing vocational facilities — we are choking on the Mega Voke annual bill. Meanwhile, we can’t service even half the number of Peabody kids who seek a vocational education.

We’ve also already had a major scandal involving a lying, cheating first superintendent at the voke, and who knows what future scandals are on the way following the possible payola that went on there in Middleton.

Put it this way, the school committee’s request for the $4m budget increase to 74.5m in 2018 roughly equals what our total assessment is for the Mega Voke.  And while some of the councilors who voted for this disaster have moved on, some are still there, which is why I remind you that this is an election year.

But the school budget bloat doesn’t stop there. Herbie is proposing two new administrative positions in the 2018 budget at $100K apiece. One of those jobs, Herbie says, is so they can trim the workload of Assistant Super Cara Murtagh. That’s right, let’s potentially cut teachers so the Superintendent in Waiting doesn’t have to work a few extra hours each week.

“Most of you know that I’d rather chew my arm off than lay off a teacher, but I had to give you something,” said Herbie, the crocodile tears no doubt rolling down his cheeks as he proposed the slashing of no fewer than five teacher jobs to help trim the school budget.

Yeah, how about giving back some of your bloated salary, which already pads your hefty pension? Instead of worrying that your sidekick is working too hard, how about paying attention to and solving the teacher morale crisis at our Level 3 status high school?

“We’re going to have to make some very difficult decisions,” Bettencourt told school committee members.

But what the Mayor should have said was: “It’s time to give until it hurts once again, Peabody taxpayers.”

Hand-picked candidate looms; Peabody Super search a sham?

14 Apr

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It’s a theory now being pushed forward that is both believable and typical of certain politicians in our depressed little burg.

cara

Your next Superintendent of Schools!

You think that the Mayor and most members of Peabody’s School Committee are upset over the recent superintendent search ending in disaster when not a single, qualified candidate was put forth?

Well, think again.

I think the fix is in, and so do several political “spies” I’ve heard from in a covert op I’ll simply call “BiddyLeaks.”

Here’s what I’ll say: I don’t think that School Committee members Rossignol, Carpenter, Amico, and maybe others are upset at all that the recent superintendent search ended in disaster.

Why? Well, first off it gives their good buddy Herbie Levine, who we like to call Interim Super for Life (ISFL), the ability to cash in on another year of his giant salary while going through the motions of the job.

But … it also gives them another year to position Herbie’s protégé as his heir apparent.

That’s right, we hear that the Mayor would be thrilled if current Assistant Superintendent Cara Murtagh got the job in a year. In fact, one BiddyLeaks spy tells me the Mayor might even already have a little “unofficial,” wink, wink, nod, nod agreement here with Cara.

Now, I don’t know anything about Ms. Murtagh, and whether or not she has the right stuff to handle the complex nature of our school system and its $72m-plus budget, so I’m not about to impugn her at this time.

But you should know that this is one reason why the most-recent search for a new superintendent was a total sham. And if there are further searches going forward, they too will be sham exercises at taxpayer expense.

Wait it out a year is their mantra. That way, we can get our mediocre ISFL one more year of fat paychecks, and at the end we can say that he used his “scary great” superintendent talents to mentor Ms. Murtagh into the next generation of super supers.

Of course, in the end, it’s all likely to be a bunch of BS as the Mayor moves another super he can manipulate into the chair, and we all go on as before.

Yaaaay! Mediocre (or worse) schools R Us!

La-dee, freekin’ dah!

So, if you’re laying bets on who the next Peabody super will be … put a bunch on the ISFL’s protégé.

Definition of insanity? See Peabody School Committee

13 Apr

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

In a demented version of the TV show “Survivor,” the Gang that Can’t See Straight,” our “illustrious” Peabody School Committee, last night eliminated the only remaining candidate to be Superintendent of the dysfunctional 6,000-student school system.

That’s right, after hiring the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) to conduct a “nationwide search” for our next super, and after not liking any of the six and then three finalists the MASC brought before them, our elected school solons have finally come to a remarkable realization:

The one remaining candidate – a kindly looking principal of some Lynn elementary school – was not qualified to be CEO of a large, complex, and somewhat failing Peabody school system, and its $72m budget. Well … duh!

einsteinThe school committee members have seen their shadows, and it’ll be another 52 weeks of mediocrity under Interim Superintendent for Life Herbie Levine, who by now must be getting a cramp in his hand from writing out so many campaign contribution checks.

“Welcome back, it’s like you never left,” SC member Tom Rossignoll told Levine during last night’s meeting. Wonder if Tommy added later: “Oh, and by the way, my councilor at-large fundraiser is coming up. Hope you can make it.”

BTW, since becoming ISFL (Interim Super for Life), Herbie and wife have made 13 campaign contributions to the School Committee Chairman. For those keeping count, that’s almost $2K in less than 6 years. But the ISFL gives to other members of the board, too, and is often seen hobnobbing at their campaign events, and assorted reindeer games.

This is what our school committee hath wrought. Showing zero leadership, even by the Chairman, his honor the Mayor, we’ve allowed the MASC – a quasi-public, hackdom – to keep our school system stuck in neutral.

The Mensa candidates at the MASC screwed up the search. They brought us totally unqualified candidates, and now in another stroke of genius, our school committee will task this group with conducting another search – all at taxpayer expense, of course – to probably find us another group of unqualified candidates.

What was it that Einstein defined as insanity?

This school committee is indeed conducting the same madness, and expecting a different result.

For the sake of our kids, for the sake of the taxpayers, isn’t it time that someone stepped up here and led? Isn’t it time that we tell the MASC no thanks, we’ll conduct our own search?

Or … maybe it’s time we FINALLY found some qualified and responsible people to run for mayor and school committee. For those reading this, take note that it is an election year.

And, if you run, maybe you’ll even be graced with a check signed by Herbie, who right now we suspect will be the interim now well past his 90th birthday.

Another fumble: SC drops ball on superintendent finalists

24 Mar

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

The Peabody School Committee has selected three finalists as contenders to be our next superintendent, which begs this question:

stooges

Why didn’t the Peabody School Committee pick these guys instead?

What? Where Larry, Moe and Curly not available?

OK, so no intended disrespect to the three fine school administrators who our “brilliant” school committee members chose here following a “Nation Wide Search.” The finalists have excellent public education credentials, and congrats to them on devoting their careers to teaching kids in Somerville, Lynn and Gloucester.

And let’s face it, I wouldn’t complain if someone made me a finalist for a job which — with all benefits included — paid me more than $200K a year of taxpayer money.

But let’s be real here. The majority of this School Committee continues to be the gang that can’t think straight. I mean, considering the importance of this position, considering what it pays, and considering our dire need to finally retire a free-loading, mediocre “Interim Superintendent for Life,” we couldn’t come up with a more noteworthy Final 3?

None of the three has ever been a superintendent before, and with the challenges we face in our schools, the last thing we can afford to do is take a chance on someone who might become rookie-of-the-year.

“They all had good qualities and good potential, but my reservation is that … I want an experienced superintendent, and none of the people before us have ever been a superintendent of schools, not even in a small district,” said SC member Beverley Dunne, who did the right thing by objecting to advancing the three candidates. “I believe that’s a necessity to deal with all the moving parts of a district of this size. I just don’t feel confident that the people we’re moving forward have the necessary experience.”

And she’s 100% correct when you consider the size of our district, and it’s $70M budget. Also correct is member Jarrod Hochman, who joined Dunne in dissenting. As for most of the others on this elected board?

Well, I’ll start with the dumbest statements made the night the vote was taken to advance these finalists. Members Tom Rossignoll (who’s now seeking to bring his scary great public service talents to the city council as an at-large candidate), and Brandi Carpenter tried to tell us how it’s actually a good thing that the three finalists selected lack experience when it comes to running a large, very complex school district.

“The benefit is you get someone new and hungry for the job. They can grow into the position and hopefully stay for a long period of time,” said Rossignoll, talking as if we we’re hiring a college intern instead of a high-level school department chief executive.

A $190K base salary for having no experience? Excellent gig if you can get it!

The fact here is that this school committee fumbled again. There were just six interview candidates overall, and none of them have ever been a superintendent. Not ever. Not anywhere. This is the group of candidates we got, too, after investing $10,000 of taxpayer money in a search consultant. Maybe we should have gone with Indeed.com instead?

Vote no on Question 2: Save Our Public Schools

4 Aug

 

By Bob Croce, Candidate for State Rep, 13th Essex District

 
For me, there is no gray area. Plain and simple, lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts is bad for our traditional public schools.

It’s bad for all of our local public school systems, and bad for an overwhelming majority of the children of the Commonwealth.

In November, voters across the state will get an opportunity to weigh in on Ballot Question 2, which would allow major expansion of charter schools in the state, schoolswhile draining billions of dollars from our traditional public schools.

I urge you to vote no.

Not because I am against the basic concept of specialized education, but because the system for charter school funding right now is broken. Any expansion would only further take away funding from traditional public schools across the Commonwealth, and place further financial hardship on public schools in Danvers, Peabody and Middleton. Our school systems will be hurt while major charter school companies—backed by Wall Street investors—reap the benefits.

Save Our Public Schools, a grassroots coalition of parents, educators and community groups opposes the ballot question, and I hope you will too.

The following points, made by Save Our Public Schools, are the heart of why I feel raising the cap would have a negative impact on public schools in Danvers, Peabody and Middleton:

Lost funding
This year alone, charters will divert more than $400 million from public schools. That’s money districts desperately need so they can offer more science, technology, arts and music classes, as well as preschool services and smaller class sizes. The money should be kept in the public schools for the benefit of all students.

No local accountability
Charter schools are not accountable to their local communities. The state often approves them over the united opposition of the communities where they will be located. That’s wrong. Local communities should have the final say on what kinds of schools they want.

For more information, please visit Save Our Public Schools at http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org.

 

Ethical questions arise over construction of new sports complex at regional voke school

16 Nov

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Following the publication of a comprehensive investigative report this morning by Paul Leighton of the Salem News, it might finally be time for the State Ethics Commission to investigate potential political shenanigans on the grandiose grounds of Essex Technical Regional High School.

The latest saga involving the $135 million “Mega-Voke” — which serves 40 communities, including Danvers, Peabody and Middleton — concerns a dubious deal for a new sports complex. Leighton reports that, in November 2013, Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O’Connell suggested – as required when it comes to public projects — that the school board issue a request for proposal (RFP), and put out for bid a plan to build a sports complex on school grounds in Middleton.

But now, two years later, as construction is about to begin on the $11 million facility — with its two ice-skating rinks, an indoor turf field, and an athlete training center — it has come to light that that no bidding process occurred. A developer called Edge Sports Group was simply handed the contract following some questionable maneuvers within the State Legislature.

Ted Speliotis

Ted Speliotis

Contrary to a “strong recommendation” from the State Inspector General that the deal be put out to bid in an effort to ensure “an open and fair deal” for taxpayers, State Rep. Ted Speliotis and Gloucester state Sen. Bruce Tarr sneaked a few lines into a large spending bill on Beacon Hill that gave the lease to Essex Sports.

Not necessarily illegal or unusual on Beacon Hill, but according to Leighton’s report, here are some things that make you go “hmmm” as a taxpayer:

  • According to Leighton, one of the key people behind the passage of the special legislation was Jack McGlynn, a Salem-based attorney and lobbyist who also works as outside counsel to Essex Tech. McGlynn played a significant role in guiding the legislation that created Essex Tech, Leighton writes, adding that, according to state records, the North Shore Regional Vocational School District paid McGlynn $217,000 as a lobbyist from 2005 to 2010 while the merger was being developed.
  • McGlynn, Leighton writes, has been paid approximately $24,000 over the last two years by Essex Tech for his advice on the sports complex and other issues, according to the school district.
  • In 2014, he landed another employer regarding the project – Edge Sports Developer Brian DeVellis. According to state records, Leighton writes, the company hired McGlynn on Feb. 14, 2014, to lobby for passage of the legislation that would specify Essex Sports (Edge) as the developer. Leighton adds that 10 days later, O’Connell and McGlynn hosted a meeting for local legislators at Essex Tech to introduce the DeVellis and Edge Sports Group.
  • McGlynn, Speliotis tells the Salem News, has also contributed to every fundraiser the Rep has held since he was elected in 1997.

Speliotis, meanwhile, told the Salem News that he was not concerned about going through a public bidding process because there were no other developers willing to build the sports facility. “The RFP process is to make sure you’re not giving a special deal to someone in a marketplace where someone else doesn’t have an opportunity,” he said. “There wasn’t any market for this. I’m confident today that if we could put it out to bid, we’re not going to get any bidders.”

Not a market for this? Does Edge Sports really have a “monopoly” on building sports complexes?

The other sweetheart part of this deal for the developer comes through the actual lease. Essex Sports has agreed to allow all of the voke’s teams to use the facility for its games and practices without paying a fee. But there’s also a catch: Essex Sports will deduct a per athlete user-fee from the rent it will pay to the school district. In other words, the developer will probably end up paying no rent at all.

Great job of reporting by Paul Leighton, and I’m sure he’ll have further details and follow up. Here’s hoping that members of the State Ethics Commission read the Salem News.

No need for primary after Wojcik drops out of race for Peabody School Committee

28 Aug

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

Travis Wojcik

Travis Wojcik

The only Republican in the Peabody School Committee race — who made fiscal responsibility one of his themes during the recent televised “You Make The Call” candidate forum — has saved the city money by dropping out of the scheduled Sept. 29th primary.

Travis Wojcik, 19, announced yesterday that he was ending his campaign for school committee.

That eliminates the need for a primary, which would have trimmed the field of candidates from seven to six. The primary would have cost the city roughly $25,000, according Peabody City Clerk Tim Spanos. Per city charter, it’s required that the final school committee ballot only have six candidates.

Candidates Brian Addesa, Joe Amico, Andrew Arnotis, Michel Bonbon, Brandi Carpenter and John Olimpio each automatically advance to the final election ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

School Committee candidate forum on ‘You Make The Call’

17 Aug

election-2015

The seven candidates for Peabody School Committee have been invited to appear Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., in a forum on the “You Make The Call” show on Peabody Access Telecommunications Channel 99.

The format will include each candidate briefly introducing themselves, followed by a Q&A from co-hosts Dick Jarvis and Bob Croce, and ending with each candidate presenting a closing statement.

The seven candidates, Brian Addesa, Joe Amico, Andrew Arnotis, Michel Bonbon, Brandi Carpenter, John Olimpio, and Travis Wojcik, will square off in a primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 29th.

The top six vote getters in the primary will meet in November’s final election, where they will vie for three seats on the board.

Update: So far, the only candidate to not reach out to say if he could make it on Wednesday is Mr. Bonbon. Meanwhile, Ms. Carpenter — the only incumbent in the race — has officially declined the invitation to come on the show to talk to the Peabody voters.

New voke school is the ‘gift’ that keeps on giving for Peabody taxpayers

17 Sep

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

It’s the “gift” that keeps on giving, and now there’s reason to believe that Peabody taxpayers might be further fleeced because of an oversight when it comes to the new, totally ostentatious North Shore Technical School.

taxesYou see, the genius political movers and shakers, who built this Palace of Versailles of voke schools, forgot about a “little” obligation owed to the retirees of Essex Aggie, which was merged with the new voke.

Turns out that no one figured into the already over-inflated cost of the new school an additional $375,000 owed annually to pensioners. What that means is that Peabody, which wasn’t even part of the old district that included Essex Aggie, might be on the hook for a big chunk this oversight.

Oops! Maybe State Rep Ted Speliotis, a champion of this over-priced  educational edifice should simply throw up his arms and say … “sorry, the dog ate my homework.”

The new school, which will serve fewer than 200 of Peabody’s 6,000 students, is already taking a $3 million bite out of Peabody’s budget. This year, it was the primary reason for Peabody being forced, for the 13 straight year, to raise taxes on homeowners.

The problem now is that no one wants to own this mistake when it comes to the pension obligation, and no one seems to know how or why the oversight happened in the first place. Of course, the answer is simple as to who will “own” it. It belongs to us, and the taxpayers of all of the other communities who joined in here.

It’s too bad, since I’m sure the movers and shakers behind this over-the-top luxurious school building could have easily swept it under the rug when it came to the overall budget. Heck, no one would have even noticed. Right?

But now, we likely own it, and the question is, how much of it will be the obligation of Peabody taxpayers, whose kids never milked one cow at the old Essex Aggie?

Follow Bob on Twitter @eyeonpeabody

Peabody tax and water bills on rise as city tries to pay for new voke school boondoggle

19 Jun

Mayor calls for $5.4M budget increase; $3M assessed to pay for new voke school

By Bob Croce, EOP Publisher

If you supported those wasteful, big-spending elected officials – especially State Rep Ted Speliotis — who pushed for Peabody to join in the taxpayer screw job called the new North Shore Technical school, then please, bend over right now and scream out “thank you, sir! May I have another?!”

Call this horror show The MEGA VOKE that ate the Peabody Taxpayers!

Artists rendering of MEGA VOKE!

Artist rendering of MEGA VOKE!

Because of this opulent and overly ostentatious new voke school in Danvers – which will only serve around 150 of Peabody’s roughly 6,000 students – not only are your property taxes going up in 2015, but get ready for an increase in water and sewer rates too.

 

Mayor Ted Bettencourt submitted his FY2015 city budget to the City Council, and it’s calling for a $5.4 million increase, of which roughly $3 million will go to offset our share of next year’s piece of the North Shore Voke pork pie.

The mayor, in a letter to the city council obtained by The Eye, says that roughly means an average tax increase of $189 per homeowner, and a likely, yet to be determined increase in Peabody’s traditionally reasonable water and sewer rates. For those keeping score, that’s 13 straight years of property tax increases in Peabody.

And … this is just Year 1 of this Disaster in Danvers. This state of the art, $133 million school in Speliotis’ hometown, is the “gift” that will keep on giving for Peabody taxpayers now and forever.

Speliotis, who faces an election year challenge from Peabody Republican Tom Lyons, not only got this Taj Mahal of a school for his hometown of Danvers, but I’m sure he made big labor happy with the building’s bloated construction costs, which are already over budget.

Then there’s the hacks-at-the-trough process they’re using in hiring administrators. The new school’s superintendent, a guy named Daniel O’Connell, will make $197,000/year. That’s about $50K more a year than what we thought was a big contract for Peabody Schools Super Joe Mastrocola. Looks now  like Joe was a huge bargain when you consider that he manages a system with roughly 5,550 more students than will attend O’Connell’s school.

And, it gets ever worse. Not only will Peabody need to pony up millions more to send a handful of students to this new school, but because we’re transferring students from our system to this regional voke system, Peabody is set to lose $504K additional when it comes to state aid.

Next time you complain about the conditions in Peabody’s public schools, think about this: It’s only going to get worse while we as a city figure out a way to pay for a school that will service less than 3% of Peabody’s total student population. And we haven’t even talked about the costs associated with our own much-needed new Higgins Middle School, where huge construction bills are in the mail.

At this point, I should add a disclaimer for those screaming that I’m anti-vocational education. This space supports vocational education as much as the next blog, but we’re just not seeing the practicality or fairness of bilking the taxpayers in this particular situation.

Here are the facts, ladies and gentlemen: An estimated 200 Peabody kids, who we could have given a valuable vocational education had we only – for a lot less cost – re-vamped our on Peabody Vocational High School – are now going to watch helplessly as 150 of their classmates hit the lottery and are allowed to attend this educational palace on the hill in Danvers.

So, please bend over today, and thank Ted Speliotis, and those Peabody City Councilors who voted for this disastrous “gift” that will keep on giving for us the taxpayers.