April 20, 2013

Security expenditures at Maine schools scrutinized

SAD 51 Superintendent Bob Hasson did not follow protocol, the school board's co-chairman says.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Upgrades to building security at four schools in North Yarmouth and Cumberland following the shootings in Newtown, Conn., have cost the school district more than five times the original estimates and triggered questions about spending oversight

Superintendent Bob Hasson unveiled to dozens of parents at a public meeting in January a plan to spend $50,000 to install a system of electronic door locks, remote entry buzzers, swipe cards, and surveillance cameras at four SAD 51 schools. It wasn’t until a March 23 meeting that Hasson revealed the true cost – $270,000 – and apologized for not keeping the school board informed.

Now a board member is eager to know how the cost ballooned so rapidly, why the eight-member school board never voted on the spending, and how the work to install the system was approved without a public bidding or proposal process.

“We live in a democracy where you have an elected board whose responsibility is to set policy,” said Jeff Porter, the school board’s co-chairman. “Decisions were made without following proper protocol.”

Other board members said they have questions about the process, too, although one defended the superintendent’s spending decisions as necessary. Hasson did not return calls seeking comment Friday.

Board guidelines call for a bidding process on repairs or upgrades costlier than $25,000 or for the superintendent to put out a request for proposals. The superintendent may forgo the bidding process only after the board is notified and signs off on the spending, according to the district policy manual.

The manual allows the superintendent to bypass the bid and proposal process only when the “quality, expertise, time factors, or other important considerations outweigh the possible benefits of bidding or requesting proposals.”

State law also requires that the construction, repair or major alteration of public school buildings costing more than $250,000 be awarded by competitive bid. Waiving the requirements requires approval from the state Bureau of General Services, which helps manage purchasing and school improvements, among other duties. It was unclear whether that law applies to these upgrades, although, in a telephone interview, Porter pointed to the state’s law.

“It’s my contention that we still need to vote on this for it to be legal,” Porter said. “This is part of our fiduciary responsibility.”

Porter said he plans to address the spending at the board’s May 6 meeting.

Hasson has said previously that some reserve funding was expended for labor to install the security equipment, while the remaining balance – about $217,000 – will be covered in annual payments of $31,000 over seven years.

Not all board members are as concerned as Porter, however. Jim Bailinson said he supports the security spending and Hasson’s job performance over nearly 20 years in the district. Bailinson said unexpected costs -- such as computer upgrades -- were required for the system to make any meaningful improvement at the schools. He also said the board has become politicized, distracting from the core mission of educating children.

“We could have spent that $50,000 and have a system that didn’t function,” Bailinson said. “This was a moving target and a fast process. Should it have come to the board? Yes. I think that was a mistake.”

Board member Bob Vail, who is also a general contractor, said he hopes the school’s vendor -- or the superintendent -- can answer how the estimate and final cost differed so dramatically.

“I think at some point we’re going to see just what we bought for $270,000,” said Vail. “There are some questions that I certainly don’t think have been answered by anybody. And shame on me for not seeing this coming.”

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

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