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Superintendent Posts Letter to Students, Staff and Westford Community

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Editor’s Note: Superintendent Everett V. Olsen Jr. drafted this letter, dated Feb. 19,  for the Westford School Community:

At the School Committee meeting on Feb. 10, the Committee announced that it would not be honoring my request for a contract extension beyond the current school year. The Committee cited an “ongoing myriad of concerns” which included specific concerns noted in their statement. The information that I present in this letter represents thoughtful comments and response to the concerns read in public session.  In over 30 years of school administration I have never had a contentious relationship with any school committee and it is not my intent to see that happen now. The reasons for this public response are very important to me and are noted below.

  1. As parents, you have entrusted me to make sound strategic school system decisions in order to provide your children with the best education possible.
  2. As taxpayers you pay my salary and expect stable, respected, honest, expert, student-focused leadership and accountability for your dollars invested me and the staff of our school system. Are you receiving a strong return on your tax dollars, or not?
  3. My personal and professional honesty and integrity, along with my competency to continue leading our school system after 14 years as Superintendent has been questioned.
  4. The need to address the comments swirling around Westford, and beyond, that there “must be more concerns about me than are being disclosed.”

My intent is to provide clarity to the concerns mentioned in the School Committee statement and to assure you that there are no other issues such as theft, malfeasance, inappropriate behavior, etc. – concerns that have never been associated with my name and personal and professional reputation.

The information I present here is abridged in nature because it could go on for many pages.  Please know that, after reading this document, if you have any questions or would like more insight with any of the concerns that the School Committee stated in its statement, I will be willing to openly and honestly address them focusing on facts and data.

On Feb. 10, I heard the School Committee’s list of concerns for the first time with you – which is the reason for this response.  The concerns were mentioned as being “ongoingand myriad in nature.” I present the following responses to the Committee’s concerns. These responses are supported by factual information and data and are only intended to provide clarity to you as student, staff member, parent and or taxpayer in this wonderful town.

Difficult Budget Cycles – “Need to shift the budget direction.

This has always been noted in my evaluations as an area of expertise. I’ve always advocated strongly for adequate funding and managed our resources expertly.  Any additional funds come from either a one-time distribution from free cash or a more permanent source of funding that can only result from one or more of the following:

  • Proposition 2 ½ override
  • Changes to the town-wide health insurance coverage
  • Other methods such as trash fee, etc.

Communication with town administration, boards, committees and town meetings have been excellent. I will provide more lengthy clarity and detail upon request.

Communications and Interactions with Parents

After last year’s town meeting I sent a sharply worded email to a parent over a particular issue. The tone (for the first time ever in my career) was inappropriate. I did apologize to the parent and we have had respectful amicable meetings since that situation. My correspondence with staff, parents and residents continues to be excellent, respectful, kind, caring, sincere and empathetic.

Community Anxiety over Redistricting Information

A discussion of redistricting in any community always creates some degree of anxiety.  Here’s where data and sample size are most important for a perspective on “significant community anxiety”.  As a result of my redistricting presentation I received FOUR emails and THREE phone calls out of more than 3,000 parents. (The emails are archived and verifiable).

I planned and implement the ongoing K-8 redistricting 20 years ago at no cost to the town. I will continue to plan and implement any future redistricting plan with the assistance of our Leadership Team. Some communities spend $25,000 to $45,000 to contract for redistricting services. My choice is to do it in-house and spend the funds on our students.

Budget Concerns

  1. “Releasing the proposed budget to School Committee at the same time it was released to the public, which was only 27 hours prior to our first budget meeting in December, thereby giving the Committee essentially no time to assess the budget prior to having to confront the community response to the Superintendent’s proposals.”

 From many years of experience in budget preparation and submittal to school committees, this time frame is more the norm than the exception.  Historically the budget presentation meeting has been a listening session followed by comments from the committee and requests for additional information.

This year we were racing against the clock to complete the budget for three reasons:

  • New budget preparation directions were given to me by the School Committee (at the request of the Town Manager).
  • Late notification of the districts’ actual appropriation increase for fiscal 21 (December 2019 email notifying the School Committee)
  • Request for a new budget presentation format (received very positive comments from the Chair of the Select Board)

We devoted an extraordinary number of hours trying to work with new budget preparation directions, a new presentation format, and trying to develop a responsible budget with a third consecutive year of a less than adequate budget appropriation.

  1. “Failure to notify numerous employees who might be impacted by the proposed changes.”

I own this one!  I was responsible for notifying one director in my office and a preschool nurse of the proposed changes for fiscal 21.  In addition, I did not notify 14 preschool staff (prior to the budget presentation) that they will be relocating to neighborhood K-2 schools next year. This strategic move is to build on the very successful transition that took place this current year where a portion of the preschool staff were relocated to the Miller School.

A letter from a preschool staff member noted, “The preschool staff has been aware that future changes would be coming for many of us… While we were surprised to hear the news of the coming changes this way, we all understand the effects of budget cuts.  Superintendent Olsen spent time with us to make sure we understand his sincere regret at not having been able to deliver the news of the changes to us prior to it being made public… In a day and age where honesty and integrity are difficult to find in people, we have all been blessed by having those qualities in our Superintendent.” J.L., Preschool staff member

Legal Concern

“Breach of confidentiality of executive session negotiations.”

On Sept. 6, 2019, School Committee executive session minutes dated July 15, 2019 were shared with Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery and myself via Google Docs.  Although I had not yet opened the email notifying me that the document had been shared, Assistant Superintendent Clery brought a copy of the minutes to my attention.

In light of this, recent discussions revealed that executive sessions without the presence of myself or Assistant Superintendent Clery is uncharted territory because we have always been a part of executive sessions.  As a result, we learned that the standard permissions were granted for those minutes, which included access to Kerry Clery and me, in addition to School Committee members.

Upon realizing this, and in treating this as a lesson learned, my administrative assistant has since changed the permissions to include School Committee access only.

Procurement Issue

“Financial practices that did not comply with Massachusetts General Law and that has damaged the school systems reputation for fiscal responsibility.”

First let me state that many years ago I attended the state’s intensive training on public procurement regulations. I received my certificate recognizing me as a Massachusetts Certified Public Procurement Official.  I am very aware of the procurement laws that pertain to the purchase of goods and services and major school construction projects that involve filed sub bids and general contractor bids.

I would like to provide clarification to two statements from the School Committee.  First, “as all expenditures over $10,000 require obtaining multiple quotes.” The law actually states that “you must solicit written quotes from a least three vendors who customarily provide the item or service you need.” (MGL Chapter 30B).

This issue pertains to the replacement of carpet and tile in our school system.  The replacement has been due to normal wear and tear, student auditory issues, allergies, floods from broken pipes and roof leaks.  Over the last 12 years there have been 221 purchases of carpet and tile by our Director of Facilities.

Twenty-one purchases over the 12 years did not comply with the procurement regulations. Immediately upon learning of these violations I, along with our Business Office staff, collaborated with Town Finance Director Dan O’Donnell, Accountant Jesse Beyer and Assistant Town Manager Eric Heideman to draft procurement training materials. We presented these materials to the Principals and Director of Facilities and shared them with the School Committee at the meeting on Jan. 22, 2020.  The School Committee was very pleased with our quick and thorough response to these procurement violations.

It is vitally important for me to note that we have had our outstanding reputation of financial transparency for the 34 years that I have worked in Westford, and I have never knowingly violated purchasing regulations.  I have over 30 years of honesty and credibility behind our budgets and procurement practices in Westford.  The Town Manager and I have agreed that the procurement training materials that we and the town staff drafted will be shared with all departments via periodic procurement training and is a very positive outcome of this situation.

I will be glad to provide any additional information on this issue, including the comprehensive procurement materials that were collaboratively developed with town staff.

In closing, please know that I continue to demonstrate unwavering loyalty and dedication to our students, staff and the town. I am very proud that all of us working together have created the best school system in Massachusetts and one of the best in the entire nation. My level of competence, honesty and integrity are no different now than they have been over the last 30 years. Working with your children demands nothing less.

With warm regards, Everett V. Olsen, Jr. Superintendent of Schools