Blame-game begins at BOE

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:51

    In a battle of he said/he said, officials pass the buck on budget surplus Sparta — School district officials are still reeling from news that an unexpected surplus of nearly $3 million came to light last month. Although the funds will make it possible to restore some of what was eliminated from the schools during the 2010 budget cuts, questions are swirling as to how these excess funds went undetected for so long. Board members were told by Business Administrator Dr. Warren Ceurvels prior to the April school elections to expect some surplus from unused unemployment compensation because many district personnel laid off last year found other jobs. But board members and Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton said they were surprised by the additional surplus unveiled in June and upset that it was only discovered at the end of the school year. Now the blame-game has begun. Battle lines are drawn Morton said the surprise surplus was the final straw in what he called a string of errors and missteps over the last year on the part of Ceurvels, including his widely reported accidental release of district vendors’ social security numbers last summer in an open records request from a citizen. Morton said he had a conversation with Ceurvels two weeks ago urging him to retire from his position. A tentative agreement was reached and Ceurvels had verbally agreed to go. Terms were drawn up by the board attorney and all that remained was for Ceurvels to sign the agreement. On Friday July 15, central office staff reported that Ceurvels had cleaned out his office. However, on that same day he sent an email to all board members detailing his side of the story and directly accused Morton of knowing about the surplus. Ceurvels claims he told Morton funds were available to keep Mohawk Ave. School open and to keep courtesy busing, but Morton chose to eliminate them anyway. Last Tuesday Ceurvels announced he would not sign the agreement and would not leave his position. Rumors have swirled that some board members believe both Morton and Ceurvels should retire and are speaking off the record, but there has been no official statement from the board regarding either administrator. Since Ceurvels is a tenured employee and Morton has an iron-clad contract, firing either of them would be a lengthy, expensive legal process. Morton Morton said he was completely unaware such a surplus was accruing each month and had directed Ceurvels to tell him if that were the case. Morton said he and the board relied on the numbers given to them by Ceurvels and made budget decisions accordingly. Morton said, “Please think about this logically. I’ve been a superintendent for 27 years. If I knew there was a large surplus, why wouldn’t I try to spend it for the district during the course of the year? Why would I purposely hide money which is something that I know would blow up at the end of the year, and I’d get caught? Why would I do that? Why would I go through all the headache of closing a school and realigning the district if I didn’t think I had to? It just doesn’t make sense.” He added, “At the end of each year, all money is accounted for in the official audit. If there is money missing, then someone goes to jail. In this case there is extra money. I’m now accused of knowing about it. Again, what would be the purpose for making these cuts if I knew? Why would I put myself through all the budget grief we went through last year if I didn’t have to?” Morton emphasized, “I’ve been an educator my whole life. There is no way I would ever purposely make decisions that would hurt children.” Ceurvels In his email to board members Ceurvels said, “As I see it, I am being made the convenient scapegoat for the decisions of others, namely Tom [Morton] and Jenny [Dericks], that caused the majority of the surplus.” Ceurvels alleges that after voters defeated the 2010 budget, Morton and former board president Jennifer Dericks made cuts against his advice. He specifically claims it was not necessary to close Mohawk Ave. School and said, “I begged Tom not to do this, but his position was, 'they voted down my budget, I am closing their school.’ ” Morton has denied this statement, and Dericks has said Ceurvels’ accusation “could not be further from the truth.” But Ceurvels maintains that he is being held accountable for the decisions of others. He concludes his email to the board with, “I really believe you have targeted the wrong person.” Ceurvels did not respond (by press time) to phone messages requesting further comment. However, other district personnel have also expressed concerns about Ceurvels. The principals In a memo to Morton from the District Administrators Association, dated October 7, 2010, the school principals state, “In a recent Administrators Association meeting it was determined there is a consensus among the building principals regarding our inability to carry out our responsibilities due to a lack of communication with the district business office. Specifically, Dr. Ceurvels refusal to respond to email, purchase orders that are not returned in a timely manner, and general requests that go unanswered. We would appreciate your assistance in rectifying this situation so that we can continue to provide [for] the Sparta School District accordingly.” The teachers Sparta Education Association president Susan Sawey said her members have had concerns for some time regarding Ceurvels’ job performance, and said she has spoken to Morton about it on numerous occasions. However, Sawey said, “We’ve not put anything in writing to this point because our goal has been to move forward positively and not engage in the gotcha-type of tactics of the past.” But after this surplus shock, Sawey said her members are upset and confused. With all the finger-pointing going on, she said it’s hard to know what to believe. She said she will see how the BOE meeting goes next Monday and may make an official statement on behalf of the SEA at that time. The BOE Board President Keith Smith and Vice President Dorothy LaBeau provided the following statement on behalf of the board: “As board members we are bound by our code of ethics to protect our district personnel in the proper performance of their duties. We are also charged by the voters who elected us to provide proper oversight of district operations and to expect accurate information from our officials. At this time we are trying to be diligent in fulfilling all of our obligations.” What’s next? The last to weigh in will be the public and they will have their chance Monday, July 25 at the BOE meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Sparta Middle School.