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Audit Underscores Need for New Leadership of Lowell Schools

December 17, 2018

The rumblings across Lowell the past few weeks were that the long-awaited independent audit of school finances would land with a bang. On Friday night, it didn’t land so much as detonate.

The damning review by accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen shows a district in total disarray, with divisive leadership and unqualified management routinely discarding even basic checks and balances.

Former Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui is cast as someone who played “favorites.” Among the financial accusations, Khelfaoui:

* Did not inform the School Committee about a special education busing proposal that would have saved the district $1.9 million over 4 1/2 years;

* Promised a principal additional pay for a summer project not approved by the School Committee;

* Overspent the transportation budget by $1.1 million.

The employee who should have sounded the alarm was Assistant Superintendent of Finance Gary Frisch. The audit said: “Mr. Frisch was viewed as someone who was simply overwhelmed with the new job or had no idea how to manage finances or prepare a budget for such a large entity.”

Why? For one thing, Frisch was hired in part on the claim that he is a certified public accountant. He was -- his Illinois license expired more than 20 years ago. In other words, the district didn’t check his background.

All six elected School Committee members -- Andre Descoteaux, Jackie Doherty, Robert Hoey Jr., Dominik Lay, Connie Martin and Gerry Nutter -- are culpable in this mess. As a group, they failed as stewards of children’s education by not asking tough questions on a variety of issues, including the rapid deterioration of school buildings. Heat issues at Lowell High School, which have persisted for more than a year, remain unresolved. Some members have refused to even admit the district was running in the red.

But in particular, Descoteaux, Hoey and Lay have played hear-see-speak no evil, blaming their colleagues for micromanaging, or painting Khelfaoui’s dismissal as political retribution for passing over Assistant Superintendent Jay Lang for the top job four years ago.

The continuing chaos led this space to call for new direction in the 2017 election and to back all but an entirely new School Committee.

Interim Superintendent Jeannine Durkin and Interim Business Manager Billie Jo Turner, tasked with the impossible task of unraveling the district’s finances, have worked hard with city-side leaders to right the ship. But the end result will be another turn in the city’s revolving school superintendency, where the district’s leader stays until they’re sick of the job, or the School Committee grows sick of them. The culture has led to increasingly weak candidate fields in the past decade. Khelfaoui came from tiny Winchendon leaving amid ... wait for it ... controversy about a budget deficit. (Lang landed in Chelmsford. He’s probably much happier.)

Lowell is better than this. The Lowell Public Schools should be better than this. It’s time to act like it.

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