Whoa, Superintendent of Schools John Ramos doesn’t hold back in the e-blast he sent the other day as he braces for a confrontation with Mayor Bill Finch over control of the Board of Education. The BOE will have a new look with outgoing City Council member Leticia Colon and former council member Pat Crossin entering the BOE arena.
Ramos, digging in for a fight, sharpens his horns in a memo, Defending The Record of Bridgeport Schools. By the way, OIB has received several emails concerning the person who will fill the BOE operations director position. BOE employees are pushing for Paula Weiner. Anyone know her? Let us know what you hear. See Ramos’ letter in full:
Defending The Record of Bridgeport Schools
A message from the Bridgeport Public Schools’ Superintendent
Over the past six weeks, numerous issues regarding Bridgeport public schools and this administration have been addressed in an inaccurate manner reflecting poorly upon our district. At the same time, it is evident that the city administration continues in its determination to run the school system in order to control resources. The most recent issues have pertained to radon testing results in several schools and health insurance payments/contributions for the Board of Education and the management of the Internal Service Fund (ISF).
As a result, it’s imperative for me to address these matters clearly and directly to provide clarification to and edification for our families and supporting community. I seek to present the facts and, in doing so, restore and solidify faith in our work and mission.
First, I would like to address the points of contention surrounding radon testing. As a district we have been independently proactive about air quality over an extended period of time — as evidenced by our aggressive implementation of the Tools for Schools program. To that end the following additional measures have been taken:
•From the onset of this project we have strived to provide transparent communication.
•In January 2009 a letter went to parents and staff explaining the impending radon testing, assuring that if high levels of radon were detected that steps would be taken to correct the problem using methods suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
•In spring 2009 it was necessary to perform re-tests at several schools.
•In May 2009 we devised a plan to address the issue of elevated radon levels detected in a number of school buildings.
•We have since notified parents and administrators advising them of the current status.
•We remain on target within the one-year time frame for remediation.
Please be reminded that the reported elevated levels of radon in our buildings are isolated to specific locations and said levels are reflected well under the margin of 20 percent needed for remediation which, again, we are currently effectively addressing. The Health Department has confirmed that our children and adults are safe.
Regarding health insurance payments/contributions for the Board of Education and the management of the Internal Service Fund (ISF), this issue is riddled with inconsistencies, omissions and, in many regards, has been portrayed in a blatantly untrue manner.
The city’s health benefits forecast, which includes both city and Board of Education employees, was not shared with Board of Education officials during budget development as required in the ordinance creating the Internal Service Fund and establishing procedures for arriving at the annual contribution.
No city forecast was provided to the District Office of Finance and Business Services at any point during the month of March 2009, despite our repeated requests of the benefits administrator for said forecast, because he was specifically instructed by the city’s director of the Office of Policy Management not to share it with us.
Absent of this essential information, the Board of Education was forced to arrive at our own benefits cost projection.
Ultimately, the city’s benefits administrator indicated and apologized for the increase, and the initially omitted numbers for which we needed to account.
Recognizing that the numbers provided by the city are now accurate, we engaged their representatives requesting that the Board of Education’s unexpended funds be utilized to offset the difference between the contribution amount and what we had originally budgeted for to allow the Board of Education to contribute the current budgeted $34 million and provide for an extension of time (6 to 7 months) to generate the savings in order to contribute to the fund. Thus far, both requests have been denied. Further, we were told that unless the $35.2 million contribution was made shortly the city would turn over the responsibility for the management of the fund to us.
This leads directly to the issues we as a district have encountered with the general operating budget. Financial management of the Board of Education affairs is continuously handicapped. In the majority of school districts, the sole authority for performing these duties is a given; in Bridgeport, control over basic financial operations and functions continues to reside in city departments. This reality does not address the operating needs of the school system. For example:
•Spanning many years the use by the city of pseudo-rates to determine reimbursement to the city for Board of Education grant-funded employees has resulted historically in over-payments never returned to the Board of Education.
•There have been many reports generated, such as the Connecticut Department of Education Financial Audit Review and the reports produced by financial consulting firms McConnell, Jones, Lanier & Murphy (MJLM) and, most recently, Dworken, Hilman, LaMorte & Sterczala, P.C. (DHLS) which provided several recommendations towards separating the city and Board of Education budgets and functions, including the posting of payrolls, journal entries, creation and processing of purchase orders, etc.
•Although the city is transitioning into a new financial management system (MUNIS), this change has not yielded the anticipated separation of accounts. In fact, in many regards, this has proved to be an impediment and maintenance of the status quo.
At the most critical time, during closing of the 08-09 fiscal year, several factors negatively conspired to contribute to our inability to successfully reconcile our budget. We were stripped of our control over key processes that were essential to end-of-year closing. For example:
•We experienced a delay in processing change orders, prohibiting us from allocating funds.
•Due to the impending implementation of the new financial management software, the city established time frames for proceeding in processing outstanding transactions in the existing system and then arbitrarily shortened said time frames and closed access to the financial system without warning, leaving the district with an array of outstanding, unprocessed transactions.
•Open purchase orders were closed prematurely, leaving unpaid invoices to be paid in the new fiscal year.
•There were grants with ending dates beyond June 30, of which the city was aware. We did not have the ability to process necessary requisitions attributed to these grants due to the previously noted lack of system access.
•We became dependent on the city administration for permission to address these grants on a case-by-case basis. The financial system was not accessible unless authorized by the city.
Among the largest areas of unexpended funds was actually a city-designed payroll misstep. In planning for fiscal year 2009-2010 MUNIS implementation, the city stated that the payroll for July 10, 2009, would be charged 100 percent to fiscal year 2008-2009. Although this was not the usual protocol, we conceded to this arrangement as the city indicated that this would allow for an “as clean as possible” transition into the MUNIS system. However, the reversal of this decision by the city after we were denied access to the financial system generated an additional $550,000 of unexpended funds by charging three days of salary to fiscal year 2009-2010.
This charge occurred after taking the necessary steps to ensure the dollars were available in the current budget year (2008-2009). Furthermore, measures were taken in an effort to contribute to the fiscal realities of the city at the request and urging of the mayor and his administration:
•A portion of the unexpended funds are a result of furlough contributions from several non-certified unions as well as unaffiliated employees.
•A spending freeze was enacted in December 2008.
•The Board of Education Department of Food and Nutrition Services generated state and federal grants revenues sufficient to cover 100 percent of operating expenses without the need to use local tax dollars.
•The estimated unexpended funds, assuming appropriated amounts in the city budget, totaled $1,619,632 for the Nutrition Department.
•Despite this effort, the city was unwilling to allow the Nutrition Department to expend any of the funds during either fiscal year 2008-2009 or fiscal year 2009-2010 while essentially forcing this department into an opening deficit in their budget by not allocating any city funds for the current fiscal year.
•During fiscal year 2008-2009, we initially committed $2.5 million and ultimately, under duress, contributed an additional $2 million, totaling more than $4.5 million.
Overall, the Board of Education’s contribution was nearly $6.5 million. Note that this is very close to the $7 million amount the city originally asked for! This amount is more than ample to offset the $1.26 million the city indicates we are short on health insurance premiums; however, as stated above, this request has been denied.
In good faith, at the city’s request, we presented the option of give-backs to our staff and many of us agreed to take furlough days. Further, our Food and Nutrition Services Department, responsible for providing service and healthy meals to our children, made money-saving concessions. These efforts were made to aide the city in closing what they reported to be a large financial gap. We sincerely believed that if we did everything in our power to meet this request the burden placed on taxpayers would be alleviated, jobs would be saved and the necessary resources would be provided for our children culminating in the creation of a strong alliance between the city and Board of Education. We looked at this as an opportunity to truly work in tandem with the city administrators for the greater good of the community at large. In the aftermath of all this sacrifice, it has been disheartening to be largely victimized and then characterized as inefficient. It is apparent that no good deed goes unpunished.
This is not simply a matter of the school district not being able to keep an accurate account of its funds nor is this due exclusively to staff error, although there has been some, but instead is an ongoing orchestrated manipulation by city administration in their quest for increased financial contributions from the Board of Education and greater control over our operations as a whole.
To this end, in the fall of 2008 we experienced a long delay in our attempt to hire staff for our Maintenance Department. This delay was due, primarily, to the mayor’s withholding of his signature, which had been deemed necessary for filling these positions, which we challenged. We requested confirmation from the then-city personnel director that this was, in fact, a required step in the hiring process for Board of Education positions which resulted in a change of procedure. Lacking a timely response regarding filling these legitimate vacancies, the Board of Education was forced to utilize overtime at prohibitive levels. The district had to request the filling of the Board of Education maintenance vacancies by the Civil Service Commission, pursuant to Chapter 17, Section 213 of the Bridgeport City Charter. It is important to note that these positions were budgeted for the 2008-2009 school year and followed the protocol for proper approval.
Using the Board of Education as financial crutch is not the answer. Using its funds or commandeering resources without any explanation is egregious.
I am the first to say that the district bears some level of responsibility for certain events which have transpired. I am addressing those issues to ensure that the missteps will not be repeated. Most importantly, as superintendent of schools, it is my responsibility to make sure that the young scholars of this city receive an education that allows them to realize their full potential and “graduate ‘college ready’ and prepared to succeed in life.” This remains the single most compelling purpose of this administration.
Dr. John J. Ramos Sr.
Superintendent of Schools
Bridgeport Public Schools
Linda McMahon And Speedy Gonzalez
OMG, a classic Bridgeport blackmail photo. GOP U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon dropped into the city for a campaign visit the other day and that mischievous former City Councilman Joel Gonzalez fell into the camera. Does this mean Speedy will be supporting Linda? Someone call Rob Simmons.
Can you believe Thanksgiving is just days away? Not too soon to start nominations for OIB’s annual Turkey of the Year Award. The winner gets dinner with OIB friends Yahooy and Anna. Start the food fight! And do not confuse this award with Yahooy’s annual Philistine of the Year Award.
My nomination includes those state bureaucrats that decided a juvenile detention center for girls would be a perfect fit for Virginia Avenue on the Upper East Side. Hey, here’s a an idea, if it gets built there on ribbon cutting day let’s barricade all the bureaucrats (we’ll spare Jodi Rell since she’ll be out of office by then) inside the place and force them to see a replay of the public hearing from the zoo’s Carousel Building.
Épernay Holiday Party
Mark your calendar, Dec. 7, 5:30 p.m., the annual OIB holiday party at Épernay, Fairfield Avenue, downtown Bridgeport. Join us.