2015-11-19 / Around Town

Schools Cleared in $1 Million Computer Deal

MIDDLETOWN COUNCIL
By James Merolla

The Middletown School Department broke no laws or superseded no charter protocols last summer when it spent more than $1 million to buy laptop computers for students without informing the Town Council.

These findings were revealed by attorney Marc DeSisto on Monday, Nov. 16, at a tense Town Council meeting in front of a Town Hall audience packed with teachers and their supporters, who were not allowed to speak.

However, the schools failed to inform the attorney general's office of the master bidding process, and circumvented state protocol in the process – a serious breach. De- Sisto said the schools should have informed the state and the council, made the bids public, and offered full disclosure. But he said he was “certain” this would never happen again.

In announcing the findings – which Council President Robert Sylvia said no one on the council had read prior to the 7 p.m. start of the meeting – Sylvia printed the original memorandum from the administration which caused such concern on July 23, prompting the town-funded investigation. “No member of this Town Council is privy to the results of this investigation. This also holds true for Mr. Brown [the town administrator],” said Sylvia.

He allowed no public comment from the audience as DeSisto explained his findings. The attorney reiterated that the schools must do a better job disclosing their expenditures – especially on big-ticket items – to the council, although that board has no legal say in how the schools spend their approved budget monies or how they may adjust them as the school year evolves.

The 30-page report, which swelled to 500 pages with many exhibits, admonished, but did not completely condemn, the schools. It was met harshly by two councilors.

“This is not about the purchase of computers,” said councilor Henry “Rick” Lombardi. “I have a problem with the disclosure, with a timeline that certainly is suspect. What troubles me is that they can make purchase orders up to $1.2 million as of June 30, and they couldn’t come up with $144,000 in May. They beat us up for $144,000,” said Lombardi of extra monies the schools requested in a public hearing which opened a rift between the two bodies.

“It has impacted negotiations, it has impacted relations between us and the School Department. It’s driven a wedge. I have a real problem with that. They didn’t tell us,” said Lombardi. “At the end of the day, if they had told us, we could have tried to help them out. They violated our trust. We are getting beaten up, publicly and privately, on this.”

Sylvia angrily pointed to the July 23 memorandum which stated that the schools did not give the town’s finance director a copy of invoices to review purchase orders on July 10 when the director asked for the information, stating, “that the chairperson of the School Committee had directed that the spreadsheet not be shared, because the chairperson did not want a copy to be given to the council.”

“When you’re spending $1 million at one time of taxpayer money, it’s taxpayer money no matter how you cut it, which equals to probably about three percent of our tax rate,” Sylvia said. “There should be transparency. You told us tonight they spent the money, they had the computers and then they did the resolution. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! No matter how you cut it. It’s an insult to all the taxpayers of Middletown,” said Sylvia. “A million dollars we didn’t even know they had!”

DeSisto reminded the council that the schools, when not over budget, have the authority to move money from line item to line item, despite the appearance of nondisclosure, a gray area.

In presenting his findings, De- Sisto praised the collaborative effort of both town and school officials who were “cooperative at every step. All of these individuals weren’t in a competitive atmosphere. They were all in the process of asking, ‘How do we make this better?’ It wasn’t a divisive group,” he said.

DeSisto explained that all contracts of more than $3,000 have to go out to bid, a public process. Because the schools didn’t vet a public bidding process, there was no disclosure. However, the attorney added, the schools had the right to use a “collaborative purchasing” process allowed by state statutes.

But, he said, the School Committee has to have a resolution and they have to approve the resolution. “That’s public. They have to state the purpose of why they entered into the timely agreement. But no disclosure was made. That wasn’t done,” said DeSisto. “You have to get permission from the attorney general’s office to enter into one of these collaborative agreements. That wasn’t done.”

DeSisto said the schools knew the company they bought the computers from was an approved vendor who had been vetted, and offered the lowest prices. “So, they ordered them,” said DeSisto. “Then they said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a statute here, we didn’t follow it. They took the steps to follow it, but, too late, the purchase had been made.

“I’m finding they were in good faith here. They attempted to get the best price from the best vendors to get the best computers for the students,” added DeSisto. He said had the schools followed the correct process they would likely have gotten the computers at the same price.

“Had they followed the collaborative statute, you would have had public disclosure. From now on, they are aware of it,” said De- Sisto. “I am confident that any other large purchase would get to the attention of the Town Council, the administration and the public. There will be public notice of exactly what is going on. It was a good faith mistake that is not going to be repeated. I am confident in telling you this is not going to happen again.”

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