RSU 13 board votes to hold termination hearing
Rockland — The Regional School Unit 13 board voted Jan. 21 to continue with a hearing to determine whether to terminate the employment of the district business manager.
The decision, with a vote of 10-2, came after three hours of testimony from Business Manager Scott Vaitones, his attorney Bryan Dench of Auburn, Superintendent Lew Collins, auditor Ron Smith from RHR Smith & Company, and RSU 13 attorney Campbell Badger of Portland. Following the open session, the board deliberated about 45 minutes behind closed doors before announcing their decision to continue with the process.
Vaitones has been on paid administrative leave since Nov. 14.
The preliminary meeting, which was held in open session, was to lay out the facts to determine if the board felt it should move forward with termination hearings. Board members Loren Andrews of Cushing and Carol Bachofner of Rockland voted against moving ahead. The deliberation of whether to carry on with a meeting to fire Vaitones was held behind closed doors.
The meetings will continue Jan. 22 and Jan. 23.
Badger stated Vaitones failed to properly monitor a growing deficit in the school lunch program ($319,000), and improperly reported health and dental accounts as well as other errors in missing budget lines and journal entries. These errors, Badger said, have led to a $500,000 decrease in the fund balance. Fund balance, or surplus, is often used to help offset increases in property taxes to homeowners.
Vaitones contends problems began when he notified the superintendent and the school board about concerns the special education budget was going to be overspent by $500,000 due to creating several new positions.
Collins said he met weekly with Vaitones and Neal Guyer, who is the director of School Improvement, but never was made aware of a problem with the food service budget.
The superintendent said when he proposed the business manager be terminated he relied on the job description.
“Any superintendent, any finance committee should be able to ask the business manager to tell us what the bottom line is. It’s a very basic task, it’s a very critical task. Scott was incapable of doing that," Collins said.
Auditor Smith also said after reviewing district financials and finding many errors and miscalculations that Vaitones has the inability to perform his job.
Vaitones' attorney, Dench, said it was a homecoming when Vaitones was hired as the RSU 13 business manager in 2010 as he grew up in the area and his parents were both teachers in the district. He has been working for 28 years in the field, working previously for School Administrative Districts 40 and 52.
"We are not talking of someone with no knowledge and no ability to do the job," Dench said.
Vaitones' contract was extended last January to June 2015, and it was not until this fall, Dench said, that he was ever told that his performance was not adequate as he has never had an evaluation by the current superintendent.
In fall 2013, Vaitones observed 11 full-time personnel, who were added to the district that were not in the budget. He was instructed to pay for them with federal funds that are used to pay for special education students that choose to go outside the district for school. The thought was, Dench said, that the better the district program is, the less students that will seek schooling elsewhere.
However, Dench said, Vaitones became concerned when the district continued to pay $50,000 per month on student placements outside the district, and the budget was in danger of going over budget by a half-million.
Dench provided the timeline:
On Oct. 13, Vaitones informed the superintendent and the board about his concerns. On Oct. 15, Vaitones was told by the chairman of the school board to not talk about the problem until it was reviewed. On Oct. 18, Vaitones was removed as technology supervisor. On Oct. 24, an executive session was held with the auditor, superintendent and business manager. On Oct. 25, Vaitones was removed as supervisor of food service and the superintendent instituted a district-wide spending freeze. On Oct. 26, Vaitones was removed from his capacity to have final approval for purchase orders.
"He [Collins] started a series of actions, which I would consider to be retaliatory, against Scott for blowing the whistle on something he thought was a problem and has the duty to report to you," Dench said.
"This is not about any inability of the superintendent to work with Mr. Vaitones. He feels it is a moral obligation to inform you of the deficiencies he found and that the auditor found in Mr. Vaitones work," Badger said.
Badger said Vaitones never talked to Collins about his concerns, but rather put a letter on his desk and at the same time notified the school board chairman and vice-chairman.
"He’s [Vaitones] yelling 'fire, fire, fire' when he believes the superintendent is overspending the budget line," Badger said, noting it was at the very same time a vote of no confidence was taken by teachers and when administrators were submitting their concerns about the superintendent.
Collins said there is no issue with overspending the budget this year and said a report issued in December showed the budget at 58 percent spent and federal funds at 50 percent.
Dench said food service budgets are a problem across the state trying to make the program self-sufficient because students tend not to buy school lunch. He said the problem with the budget overrun is not a new problem and is something Vaitones has identified and had previously told the finance committee and superintendent.
Vaitones said he had developed a plan to pay for the overrun in increments of $80,000 per year instead of covering the short fall all in one fiscal year. He did a similar move when he worked for SAD 40, he said, and it took five years to turn the program around.
"There is no evidence of incompetence here. There are errors, yes, and he is working to fix them," Dench said, questioning if that means he deserves to be fired.
Prior to going behind closed-doors to deliberate, Dench showed the board a Jan. 8 email from former board member Brian Messing asking for information so he could help create a budget. Dench pointed out a sentence in the letter that asked where in the "SpeceD [special ed] lines the overages are that you mentioned so I can take them out."
Collins said Messing applied for the interim business manager position, which has been filled by Helen Slocomb, and has been engaged in helping to develop the budget.
When contacted by email Jan. 22, Messing said that he understood there were some special education costs that should have been charged to a federal funds account, but were inadvertently left in the local budget for the current year and said if that was case they should be removed as part of crafting the 2014 budget.
A proposal will come before the board to hire Messing at $100 per day because the district is going to need help creating the budget since the superintendent is leaving Feb. 15, Collins said.
Prior to the Jan. 21 meeting, Vaitones said by phone all meetings would be held in open session, but there was some confusion following the conclusion of the meeting if the rest of the sessions would be open to the public. They are set for Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 5 p.m. and Thursday, Jan. 23, at 6 p.m. at McLain School.
Courier Publications Copy Editor Kim Lincoln can be reached at 594-4401 or by email at email@example.com.