DANVERS — In August of 2010, the state’s associate education commissioner convened the first-ever meeting of the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School Committee.
On that night, 20 people were certified as members of the committee, which would be charged with overseeing the state’s newest school district and its soon-to-be built $133 million high school, Essex Tech.
The 20-member School Committee was large by the usual standards of a local school district, but there was a reason. It would guarantee one representative from each of the 17 communities who agreed to join the district — and provide millions of dollars in annual funding. The committee also reserved three seats for representatives from the state’s Department of Agriculture, a nod to the school’s role as the successor to the Essex Agricultural and Technical Institute.
More than five years later, the School Committee has rarely had a full slate of 20 members, and has never had all 20 members show up to a single meeting, according to minutes of the committee’s once-a-month meetings.
The board’s makeup and attendance record is all the more concerning in the wake of this week’s allegations against former Essex Tech Superintendent Dan O’Connell. A lawyer and auditing firm hired by the School Committee has found that O’Connell collected nearly $90,000 in unauthorized payments and routinely broke rules regarding the use of school employees and equipment, according to School Committee Chairwoman Melissa Teixeira.
Teixeira said the committee plans to report O’Connell to the Essex Country District Attorney’s office, state Ethics Commission, and Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. O’Connell announced his retirement after he was informed of the allegations by the School Committee in June. He has not returned repeated calls for comment.
The widespread pattern of alleged abuse raises questions about how O’Connell could operate so freely under the nose of the School Committee that serves as his boss.
“We’re asking ourselves the same question,” Teixeira said.
School Committee members are appointed to three-year terms by the mayors and and town moderators in the 17 member communities. They are not paid, unless their city council or town meeting votes to do so. Teixeira said none of the communities have voted to pay their School Committee member.
Individual members’ votes are weighted based on the number of students from their community who attend the school. Votes by the committee members from Salem, Peabody and Beverly, who send the most students to Essex Tech, are worth more than the votes of members from small towns.
Four of the committee’s 20 seats are currently unfilled — those representing Marblehead, Topsfield, Lynnfield, and the Department of Agriculture. Teixeira said the committee has a standing request into those communities and the agricultural department to make those appointments.
Teixeira said the third Department of Agriculture seat has never been filled, and that the department has not responded to the committee’s requests.
“We’ve been trying since Day 1 to get another person in that position,” she said. A spokesman for the department did not return a call seeking comment.
The allegations against O’Connell include several instances of him receiving unauthorized pay, including ordering the school business manager to pay him a $20,000 stipend and a $4,500 car allowance. He is also accused of taking surplus school bricks for his personal use and using a school employee to dog-sit at his home with no pay.
One of the biggest mistakes by the School Committee came when it approved O’Connell’s contract without seeing it. Teixeira finally asked for the contract two years later. She said the one she received from then-Chairman George Harvey had been created that day, not in 2013. Harvey has since resigned as chairman but is still on the committee.
The minutes of the May 7, 2013, meeting say that the School Committee approved a contract for O’Connell with “benefits and salary equaling $35,865.” Teixeira said she recalls the committee approving a $197,000 salary and cannot explain the $35,865 figure.
Jim Liacos, who joined the Essex Tech School Committee last year, said he noticed that the committee relied heavily on O’Connell and Harvey. Liacos served for 20 years on the Peabody School Committee and 14 years on the Peabody City Council.
“The chairperson has more authority than I had seen,” he said. “He took more liberties in signing things. In Peabody the mayor is always the chair, and they would never do something without School Committee approval, especially when it came to signing money.”
Liacos said there is also less scrutiny from the public for a regional board like Essex Tech’s, as opposed to a community’s hometown schools. He said the board’s meeting are not covered as much by newspapers or local cable TV. Communities like Peabody, Salem and Beverly pay more than $2 million a year apiece to fund the school’s budget, but he said many people are unaware of the financial impact.
“I think people are more detached from this because they know less about it,” Liacos said. “The burden of paying for the school is spread out over so many communities.”
Liacos said he believes the committee is headed in the right direction under the leadership of new Superintendent Bill Lupini and Teixeira, who was appointed chairwoman in September and is also a member of the Gloucester School Committee.
The committee is looking to hire a district treasurer as well as an independent recording secretary to take the minutes of School Committee meetings, rather than the superintendent’s administrative assistant. The committee is developing a policy regarding nepotism, and Lupini is reviewing policies and procedures on the use of cell phones, gas cards and credit cards.
“I think you’ll see that school come around with Melissa as chair and Bill Lupini as superintendent,” Liacos said.
David Ketcham, the School Committee representative from Hamilton, said the committee has taken steps to improve accountability, but acknowledged it has more work to do.
“I think we all have to sit down,” he said, “and have a conversation with each other.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESSEX TECH SCHOOL COMMITTEE
Leslie Siewko-Story, Department of Agriculture
Malcom Patterson, Department of Agriculture
Daniel Blake, Beverly
Michelle Amato, Boxford
Wayne Marquis, Danvers
George Harvey, Essex
Melissa Teixeira, Gloucester
David Ketcham, Hamilton
Joseph Sabella, Manchester-by-the-Sea
Alexandra Liteplo, Middleton
Esther Johnson, Nahant
James Liacos, Peabody
Bruce Perkins, Rockport
Thomas St. Pierre, Salem
William Jackson, Swampscott
William Nichols, Wenham
School Committee seats representing Lynnfield, Marblehead and Topsfield, and a third seat representing the Department of Agriculture, are currently unfilled.