School Committee Becomes Heated

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By: Alex Scofield
Published: 10/22/10

Barbara A. Susko and Shaun P. Cahill reminded their fellow Sandwich School Committee members on Wednesday night that a potential budget shortfall of $2.4 million or more looms behind every issue they discuss. The committee can discuss the school system’s contract with its printer service—which it did. It can discuss energy costs for the swimming pool—which it did. Committee members and Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson can bicker with and interrupt one another—which they most certainly did at times on Wednesday. Ms. Susko and Ms. Cahill said it was all a sideshow and forestalling a budgetary day of reckoning.

“We really need to focus on how we’re going to handle this significant budget reduction,” Ms. Susko said following a presentation by the principals of Sandwich’s three K-8 schools. “Then we can focus on MCAS analysis.”

“It’s amazing,” Mr. Cahill said later. “We’re talking about programs that we have actually saved money on.”

Mr. Cahill was expressing his astonishment with the dialogue following Dr. Johnson’s discussion of the FY12 budget. Discussion grew heated between the committee’s factions—Dr. Johnson and the three members who supported a three-year extension of her contract (including Mr. Cahill and Ms. Susko), and the four-member majority that voted in June not to renew Dr. Johnson’s contract following the current school year. Dr. Johnson’s status has been in dispute ever since.

Through her legal counsel, she has threatened to file suit if the committee does not recognize a contract she signed to continue as superintendent through 2013, following approval by the committee in April, with two members who have since been replaced. The district attorney ruled that the contract was null and void because it was approved at a session that violated open meeting law, but Dr. Johnson has maintained that only a judge can invalidate a contract.

Despite the contentious issues at hand, the tone has generally been civil among Dr. Johnson and the committee’s factions during meetings over the past two months. On Wednesday night, however, verbal barbs erupted between Dr. Johnson and committee members Marie A. Kangas and Jessica A. Linehan.

Ms. Linehan requested a list of school expenditures for separate school programs as line items, alluding to two—the Spinnaker program and Project Excel, two special education programs in Sandwich.

“I would appreciate it if at some point you could recognize the good work we’re doing for the children,” Dr. Johnson said to Ms. Linehan. Referring to the Spinnaker program, which serves students on the autism spectrum, “I don’t know why you continue to focus on that program,” Dr. Johnson told Ms. Linehan.

“I would like to see how much it costs,” Ms. Linehan said. “You probably have it in a drawer.”
Dr. Johnson responded that the program, which educates 16 students, and employs two teachers, costs about $410,000. “We’ve gone through this time and again and again and again,” Dr. Johnson said.

“It’s one thing to be told something; it’s another thing to actually be shown something,” said Ms. Kangas. “You just keep telling us the numbers that change all the time. …Very ambiguous.”

“I’ll be glad to sit down and tutor you,” Dr. Johnson said.

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