Thursday, June 6, 2013

Money for Nothing And Chicks For Free

(updated 6-6-13 2pm)

Fox 29’s investigative reporter Jeff Cole has a reputation as something of a pitbull when it comes to rooting out wasteful spending, fraud and abuse within government agencies, city bureaus, and local municipalities. So, last week when he called asking to get my perspective on aspects of his follow-up to the story he broke last fall about the extramarital affair and inappropriate promotion scandal at Methacton, I agreed to speak with him. The piece, which aired this week (here) revealed the terms contained in the separation agreements of, and cost to investigate, recently departed Methacton superintendent Timothy Quinn and soon-to-be departing Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, Diane Barrie.
Cole showed me copies of the separation agreements for each, which he obtained via Right To Know requests, calling out several clauses of interest. In addition he showed me copies of the legal bills which gave the fees and costs incurred by the two law firms hired to conduct the investigation. I'll save you the trouble of requesting an RTK; you can view them here.
First, the clauses. The separation agreements were virtually identical;  both contained provisions in which the school board agreed ‘not to report’ the contents and findings of the investigative report to Pennsylvania state education and disciplinary officials. I’m not sure why, especially taking into consideration the significant legal expenses Methacton incurred to obtain the report, we would want to protect either of these two individuals’ careers. I get it that they have a right to make a living, preferably in their chosen fields; however, I suggested that perhaps it shouldn’t be in the public sector. These were both adults who made choices with known risks and consequences. Presumably they accepted those risks, one being that they may not be employable in their professions if anything went wrong.
Not only that, but the findings should be made public for other reasons. This investigation lasted 5 months. It doesn’t take 5 months to find and review merely sordid emails. The taxpayers deserve to know what else was going on…were expense accounts padded? Arguably school district property and resources were used.  It also goes to what kind of school board are we dealing with – what kind of oversight have they had? Why didn’t this come to their attention before a reporter uncovered it?  
Another concession Quinn and Barrie received was that Methacton agreed to issue them ‘neutral’ reference letters. Typically such a letter would include only the start and end dates of their employment, their titles, and their ending salaries. As above, I’m not sure why we taxpayers should care about protecting their careers when they themselves evidently didn’t. For example, If you were parents of children in the next school district that considers hiring Quinn, wouldn’t you want to know that in at least three other school districts, he has shown a propensity to spend school time and resources pursuing relationships with coworkers?
In a time when the tax dollars we use for education are stretched so thin, and the school district always wants to raise taxes, I think taxpayers want to feel a comfort level with how wisely those dollars are being spent and that school district employees will be fully focused on the education and welfare of our children. These days employers do their homework about potential employees on Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc. They expect to know what it is that they are getting into and what liabilities they may be taking on.
Second, the legal expense. In a time when the school district is again asking for a tax hike – the final percentage is still unknown at this time as a final budget will be adopted later this month - and Methacton is in the process of quietly negotiating a new teacher’s contract, Methacton spent a total of over $81,000 for the five-month investigation. $27,000 went to the firm of Dischell Bartle & Dooley, and $57,000 to the firm of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot. All this money was spent on a report which will never be released publicly. In fact, because Quinn and Barrie opted to forgo formal due process hearings and instead resigned, I understand that the school board itself would not even have seen the contents of the report that cost so much.  
As for the $81,000 report itself, Cole put in a Right to Know Request to obtain a copy, which was denied by Methacton, and denied on appeal to the Office of Open Records. Reports such as the one that obviously contained damaging information that Quinn and Barrie hoped would never see the light of day are considered an exemption under the Open Records law. That’s a loophole that I think should be rectified in future revisions to that Law. Anything that costs taxpayers that much money should be available to them, especially when you consider the things we’ve cut out of the school district budget in recent years that this money could have been better spent helping to fund – buses for extracurricular activities, the T-1 program….and again, I get it that they preferred not to go through the discomfort and spectacle of hearings about their behavior, but that is a risk they were evidently comfortable taking.
It’s maddening when you realize all of this could have been prevented, twice. The 2008 Methacton School Board was warned by residents even before Quinn was hired that he had known baggage…. a record of doing this in two other PA school districts, per numerous articles available to even a casual researcher on the Internet, yet he was hired anyway.
The second time they could have prevented a major expense regarding Quinn occurred in 2010 when he asked for and got his contract renewed early. I spoke out against it at the time. Had we let the original contract run with no early renewal, by the time the scandal came out last fall, Methacton would then have been well positioned to potentially not even do an investigation, but simply give him 180 days’ notice that it was not renewing his original contract and thus wouldn’t have had to pay out anything to say ‘sayonara’.
Added to the legal costs were the payouts to each to close out their contracts through the end of this year, as negotiated. $21,000 in paid time off ( PTO) benefits were paid out to Quinn and just under $500 in PTO benefits to Barrie (she apparently didn’t have much vacation time left on the books). All in all, the total cost to part ways exceeds $100,000. In the case of Quinn, that amount could potentially have been virtually zero.
School board directors often lament that many budget items such as pensions, fuel costs and unfunded federal and state mandates are out of their control. Let’s hope that going forward, our school board directors – most of whom were not in their positions when Quinn was hired – will exercise  due diligence when considering candidates for Quinn’s permanent replacement, because the costs in this instance most certainly were within their control to avoid from the beginning.   


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