Even before the town manager’s proposed fiscal 2015 budget was released last Friday, a dispute erupted over the School Department’s leasing of 160 computers for special education teachers.
The four-year lease deal, which was requested by school Superintendent Marinel McGrath in conjunction with the town’s Chief Information Officer Paul Puzzanghera at the end of last fiscal year, came as a surprise to members of the Finance Committee, Board of Selectmen and at least one School Committee member.
Now, questions are being raised by town officials over who authorized the lease and how it will be paid for.
“Somehow they went from needing 400 computers to needing 560,” Finance Committee member Greg Serrao said recently. “They bought 160 computers, but it was not in the budget. They had surplus money and used the surplus, but leased the machines for three or four years. So this year, they have to pay for the computers out of the operating budget.
“Nobody knew they were doing this,” he added. “The selectmen didn’t even know. It makes you wonder about internal controls. The IT guy goes out, leases computers for $200,000 and didn’t tell anyone about the leasing.”
During a Tri-Board meeting in December, when the lease deal first came to light, several selectmen expressed astonishment at the deal.
“Who approved that?” Selectman Mary Lyman asked. “And why are we finding out about it now?”
Added Selectman Brian Major, “We are talking about money we hadn’t planned for. Government can’t work that way. That’s how you get into deficits. ... That’s a disservice to the citizens of the community and a disservice to us.”
A last-minute lease
In 2012, Town Meeting voters approved a $2.5 million plan to purchase IT equipment to modernize school and town offices. Part of that included using money from the Cable TV fund to lease 400 laptop computers over two years for so-called “knowledge workers,” such as teachers, administrators and town officials.