DANVERS — Former Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O’Connell engaged in a widespread pattern of wrongdoing in his short tenure at the new school, including collecting $89,000 in unauthorized pay and using school employees to perform unpaid work at his home, according to the findings of two investigations launched by the School Committee.
Among the allegations:
- O’Connell ordered the school business manager to pay him a $20,000 stipend not authorized by the School Committee;
- He directed the business manager to pay him a $4,500 car allowance not authorized by the School Committee;
- He used a school gas card for personal business;
- He ordered an administrative assistant to mark his vacation days as work days;
- He hired contractors that he’d used on personal projects to do repair work at the school without permits or inspections;
- He loaded a truck with surplus school bricks for his personal use; and
- He used a school employee to dog-sit at his New Hampshire home with no pay.
The School Committee has sent a letter to O’Connell demanding that he repay $88,902 in unauthorized payments, and it plans to ask Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office to determine whether O’Connell’s actions constitute criminal misconduct.
The committee also intends to file a written complaint with the state Ethics Commission and report O’Connell to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine whether his superintendent license should be revoked.
O’Connell, who retired last fall, did not return repeated calls seeking comment. No one answered the door at his home in Seabrook, N.H., on Thursday. His lawyer, Gabriel Dumont, also did not return calls.
The allegations against O’Connell also bring to light an inherent problem with the School Committee that was tasked with overseeing him. The School Committee approved a $197,000 salary for O’Connell but never saw or voted on his contract, approved what turned out to be an illegal health insurance plan, and signed off on vacation buybacks to which O’Connell was not entitled.
Current School Committee Chairwoman Melissa Teixeira, an attorney, said the committee decided to go public with the allegations, and with its plans to prevent a repeat of abuses, in order to regain the trust of staff, parents, students and taxpayers.
“There’s a responsibility of the School Committee to operate and make decisions in public,” she said. “We feel this is the time to share and discuss publicly the allegations and the steps we’re taking.”
O’Connell, 65, was hired by the School Committee in March of 2013 to lead the newly created Essex Technical High School, the result of a merger of three local schools — Essex Agricultural and Technical Institute, North Shore Technical Vocational High School, and the vocational program at Peabody High School. O’Connell was the superintendent of North Shore Tech at the time.
The superintendent is overseen by a 20-member volunteer School Committee made up of representatives of the school district’s 17 member communities, appointed by the mayor or town moderator in each community, and three representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture. The $133 million school, on Route 62 on the site of the former Essex Aggie, opened in 2014 and has about 1,200 students.
Teixeira, the Gloucester representative to the School Committee, said she and fellow School Committee member Thomas St. Pierre, who represents Salem, learned of several allegations against O’Connell last May and brought their concerns to the full committee. The committee voted to hire an outside attorney to investigate, then expanded the probe by hiring an outside auditing firm upon the advice of the attorney.
The School Committee informed O’Connell of the allegations at a June 11 closed-door meeting, according to Teixeira. On July 30, O’Connell told the School Committee he would retire in the fall.
Teixeira said she first became concerned about O’Connell when she asked last year for a copy of his contract. She said she asked then-School Committee Chairman George Harvey twice before she received one via email. The contract did not appear legitimate, she said.
The contract was dated May 10, 2013, and signed by O’Connell and Harvey. But Teixeira said the Word document that contained the contract was actually created two years later, on May 21, 2015. The contract had a salary figure of $35,343, which Teixeira said did not make sense. Teixeira said the committee voted in 2013 for O’Connell to receive a salary of $197,000, but never saw or approved a contract.
Teixeira said she made an oral complaint to the State Ethics Commission in June and asked Harvey to resign as chairman. Harvey, who represents the town of Essex, did step down as chairman in August but is still a member of the School Committee. He did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday and Thursday.
Padding his paycheck
The two subsequent investigations, conducted by attorney Naomi Stonberg and the auditing firm MelansonHeath, revealed that O’Connell used a variety of unauthorized, and in some cases illegal, means to pad his paycheck, according to Teixeira. Teixeira said the investigations are ongoing and any written reports are not yet public. She revealed details of the investigations, however, in an interview with The Salem News.
In September of 2014, she said, O’Connell directed the school’s business agent to pay him a $20,000 stipend, to be paid in monthly installments.
The School Committee had voted in 2013 to give O’Connell a $20,000 stipend for a 15-month period while he served as superintendent of both North Shore Tech and Essex Aggie, before the new school opened. But that stipend ended on June 30, 2014. Teixeira said the $20,000 stipend ordered by O’Connell in September of 2014 was an “illegal payment not authorized by the School Committee.”
O’Connell also directed the business agent to pay him a car allowance of $4,500 for the two prior fiscal years, also without School Committee approval. At the same time, he was using a school district gas card without committee approval for expenses related to personal business, she said.
O’Connell also manipulated his vacation pay in 2013, 2014 and 2015 to gain unauthorized payments totaling $58,242, according to the letter to O’Connell demanding repayment.
In one instance, then-chairman Harvey wrote a letter directing the business manager to pay O’Connell for 25 unused vacation days, for a total of $20,852. Teixeira said O’Connell did not have an annual vacation buyback clause in his contract, and that only the full School Committee, not the chairman, is allowed to authorize any payments.
In another instance, O’Connell directed an administrative assistant to change a week of vacation days that he had taken to workday compensation.
Teixeira acknowledged that the School Committee unwittingly signed off on the vacation buyback payments when it signed the monthly payroll lists that committee members routinely approve at meetings. She said the committee has taken steps to ensure that doesn’t happen again, including requiring the School Committee’s finance committee chair to review the payroll list with the business manager before the meeting.
Improper vacation pay
O’Connell also received health and dental benefits to which he was not entitled, according to Teixeira. Teixeira said the School Committee agreed to a stipulation in O’Connell’s contract that the school district would pay the entire cost of his health and dental benefits. She said the committee later learned that state law requires employees to pay at least 10 percent of the cost, so the contract clause was illegal.
Teixeira said the committee relied on O’Connell and Harvey to make sure the contract was legal. “In this case we learned we couldn’t trust the chair or the superintendent,” she said.
O’Connell also used school employees to work at his home, sometimes for no pay, Teixeira said. In one instance he paid a school employee to dog-sit at his home while he was on vacation. In another instance, a school employee performed the dog-sitting task for one week with no pay.
O’Connell also took surplus school property, using school employees and equipment to load a truck with bricks to bring to his home in New Hampshire during school hours, she said. He also allowed school employees to sign out school equipment for personal use, including a truck and tools like leaf blowers, Teixeira said.
O’Connell violated state bid laws when he used contractors who were working on his own home to repair the school gymnasium roof. Teixeira said O’Connell did not get a permit for the work. He also used painters at his house for work at the school. The unauthorized contractors and off-site use of school equipment by employees exposed the school district to potential liability issues, Teixeira said.
Teixeira said O’Connell violated the state conflict-of-interest law by taking actions to benefit an immediate family member. She declined to offer more details.
Preventing more problems
Since the initial investigations, Teixeira said the School Committee has authorized MelansonHeath to review other aspects of the school’s finances, including student activities, school lunches, athletics, adult education, and career programs. The auditing firm is scheduled to present its report at a School Committee meeting in February.
Teixeira said the School Committee, which is made up of members from each of the district’s 17 member communities as well as a representative from the state Department of Agriculture, is taking several steps to prevent similar wrongdoing in the future. The committee is advertising for a district treasurer, a position that now has a new job description and responsibilities. The school is also looking to hire an independent recording secretary to take the minutes of School Committee meetings, rather than the superintendent’s administrative assistant.
In addition, Superintendent Bill Lupini, who was hired to replace O’Connell in September, is reviewing the school’s policies and procedures on the use of cell phones, gas cards and credits cards, Teixeira said. The School Committee is also developing a policy regarding nepotism.
Teixeira, an attorney who has been on the School Committee since 2009 and was appointed chairwoman in September, called the alleged misconduct by O’Connell “very, very unfortunate” and said it reflects unfairly on a school that is doing great work.
“So much good is happening here,” she said. “We’ve got to get back to that.”
Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said she has been briefed by Teixeira about the allegations and said she is “obviously concerned about what I have heard.”
“But I have confidence that the School Committee will do what is needed to restore trust in this very important regional high school,” Romeo Theken said.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll also said she was troubled by the allegations. She said many local leaders supported additional funding for the school and are still excited about the programs it offers students.
“I do think this is isolated with someone who may have taken advantage of the School Committee and the communities that fund the school,” Driscoll said. “It’s disappointing, but the school is doing great work.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 firstname.lastname@example.org.