Globe Editorial

Inflated bills, no accountability at Merrimack special ed group

July 19, 2011

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INSTEAD OF helping cities and towns manage the high cost of special education, officials at one or more of the state’s 30 educational collaboratives helped themselves to lavish salaries, indecent perks, and bloated pensions. These public agencies, which provide transportation and classroom services for special-ed students, lack appropriate financial oversight.

Four state offices are looking into the allegations of financial abuse at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative, which covers 10 communities in the Merrimack Valley. The inspector general charges that Merrimack executive John Barranco fleeced the collaborative out of more than $10 million while manipulating the payrolls of the collaborative and a closely related nonprofit partner - which Barranco also led. The attorney general’s office is looking into conflicts of interest and other problematic aspects of Merrimack’s operations. The state treasurer is examining pension histories of Merrimack employees, focusing on no-show jobs and other abuses. And the state auditor is combing not just Merrimack’s books, but also those of collaboratives based in New Bedford and Middleborough.

The collaboratives have operated without meaningful oversight since the early 1990s, when the state Department of Education stopped sending observers to board meetings. Currently, just one state education official works in a centralized advisory position with all of the groups. On Thursday, a special committee of the state Board of Education is expected to discuss the scandal.

The structure of the collaboratives creates an ideal environment for fraud and abuse. The boards consist of school committee members or school superintendents from each town in the consortium. Yet members can be easily compromised. The inspector general, for example, cited Merrimack’s habit of appointing former board members to high-paying positions. Board members have no business forging future financial relationships with the collaboratives.

State auditor Suzanne Bump is especially concerned about blurring the line between the educational collaboratives and their nonprofit partners and subcontractors. She told a legislative committee in May that she hit a brick wall when trying to follow taxpayers’ money at two educational collaboratives because subcontractors refused her request to review their books. The Legislature needs to step in quickly to close this loophole.

Regionalization is a good way to combat the high costs of special education, especially in smaller towns. But if regional collaboratives can’t operate transparently and efficiently, then they should not be operating at all.