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Brian Bagley has been named acting superintendent of the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District.
Friday, April 13, 2012

Wilton-Lyndeborough school district won’t halt professional development over credit card scandal

WILTON – Faced with scrutiny of district spending on education conferences that has led to a temporary change in leadership, Geoffrey Brock, chairman of the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School Board, says he supports the idea of professional development.

The cost of three professional conferences in 2011 became an issue after a School District audit flagged the use of the district’s credit card to pay for alcohol, movies and limousine service, presumably by Superintendent of Schools Trevor Ebel, whose name is on the card statements.

Ebel, who has not returned calls for comment, is on a 10-day medical leave, and this week, the board named Brian Bagley – the Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School principal – as the district’s acting superintendent. Leo Corriveau, superintendent of the Mascenic district, was hired to serve as an adviser, “to make sure nothing is dropped,” no deadlines are missed, Brock said.

A review of the credit card statements showed thousands of dollars for airfare, hotel reservations, meals and rental cars during the 2010-11 fiscal year, including $5,000 in room charges at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel last November, $3,600 for hotel rooms in San Francisco last spring and meal tabs of up to $500.

The San Francisco trip was for the annual conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Brock said he thinks the other two major conferences, in Boston and Pittsburgh, were put on by the same association.

The School Board encourages professional development for its teachers and administrators, he said, and it doesn’t want to give spending that level of close scrutiny.

“One point of view is that New England is kind of stodgy, tightfisted” when it comes to spending, he said. In New York state, for example, “no one would ever consider” asking educators to skimp on conference spending by driving back and forth to a conference. “New Hampshire is unique.”

Being in California among educators from all over the country is valuable, because it provides local teachers with different points of view, he said.

And since they cost the local school district nothing, the board will continue to support the trips.

“Why wouldn’t we take advantage of this kind of professional development?” he asked.

On the other hand, the School Board might want to discuss tightening the guidelines for the amounts spent on rooms and meals, he said, although federal guidelines for that spending are being followed.

Ebel and Bagley attended the San Francisco conference with at least five other educators. Six people, including Ebel, were on the Pittsburgh trip. If a spouse were to accompany someone on a trip, he or she would pay their own way, Brock said.

The superintendent determines which conferences teachers and administrators will go to, who will go and whether a hotel room is necessary, he said.

Along with trip expenses, the credit card statements show a number of amounts close to home, including $39 at Shaw’s Supermarket and a $4.98 item at the Amherst Walmart, as well as a $161 charge at Giorgio’s restaurant in Milford.

The credit card has been shut off while an attorney hired by the School Board investigates unauthorized charges. Auditors also urged the board to implement a policy governing its use and require all receipts to be submitted before payment is made for the purchases. They also emphasized that no personal items should ever to charged to the School District card.

The audit, complied by Plodzik & Sanderson Professional Association of Concord, cites about a dozen instances of failed compliance, improper handling of purchase orders, untimely deposits of district funds, and at least one instance where the district violated policy by advancing a district employee’s pay.

Auditors said they found a series of “inappropriate disbursements” charged to a federal Rural Education grant and to a state grant intended to improve teacher quality. Their report says Ebel had acknowledged the findings and said the district was reimbursed in cash for some of the items charged on the card. The auditors said they could find no such cash receipts.

Brock said the board is following legal advice in their decision not to suspend Ebel or any other employee.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@cabinet.com.