HOLDEN, Mass. — Almost a month after the discovery of a $1.2 Million over-expenditure in the Wachusett Regional School district's FY12 budget led to the termination the contract of Business Manager Peter Brennan, Superintendent Thomas Pandiscio is ready to bow out of the situation.
Though the school committee is yet to accept his Monday resignation, in his letter Pandiscio said he would stay on as long as he was needed but felt his "ability to provide the district with meaningful service was made difficult based on a legitimate outcry of accountability by the public."
In an interview Wednesday, Pandiscio said he stayed long enough to help with the FY13 budget so the district could open the school year.
"It was really my hope, the day I met the school committee about this, I told them we need to take a rational approach to this, and we need to solve it as a community, but it was my fear that I won't be able to be a part of this because of the political forces that will bear upon us," he said. "I said maybe you need to do something about me, but whatever you do you need to do it dispassionately and logically, and instead we've done things angrily, emotionally, and without reason — and we're actually destroying the very institution that we're trying to rebuild."
He said he told the school committee he had no problem falling on his sword for them on day one.
"I take the responsibility of this problem very seriously. There's no defense, there's no lack of accountability, there's no sense of this isn't my problem, it's Brennan's problem," he said. "All they had to say a month ago was leave, and I would have. So you've got a couple people kicking the corpse, and I'm totally emotionally un-invested, because it's on them at this point."
While he had expected it would eventually come to his resignation, Pandisico said, "what I didn't anticipate was the quick turnaround of some people who had supported me so much."
Now he fears that there is a belief that "somehow hanging me in effigy is going to restore credibility in the school system" and that "for a period of time the district is going to have a difficult time finding reasonable leadership."
Panadiscio may be leaving, but he's concerned about the ability of the district to find a replacement in the wake of the issue. When superintendents potentially coming to the district Google Wachusett, he fears they will read the anonymous comments written about the situation and say, "'if I can work some place, why would I work there?' My biggest fear is — everybody's replaceable, including me, but how are we going to get anyone to come here to clean up the mess because we just keep making a mess."
Furthermore, he said he has concerns that his leaving will not be enough for some.
"Peter left too quick," he said. "There's still blood in the water, so they want somebody. At some point hate burns itself out, but I've never seen anything like this so I'm not really sure. The important thing is that anything that has the appearance of malfeasance has been acknowledged, and had a light shone on it."
Pandiscio said that given the way the administrative team has handled the situation, he doesn't see why it requires the "off with their heads" reaction that has followed.
Part of what he says contributes to this getting traction is the electronic bulletin board provided to the community through media outlets "that allows complete anonymity."
"It's interesting, in our culture we finally have at our fingertips an available tool that allows for almost Athenian direct democracy, and the only thing it is is a mob of angry, misinformed people not even using their real names, unaccountable for truth and unaccountable for fact being able to take shots at people" he said. "We call it transparency, and we call it accountability, and we call it tapping into the parent community. I don't know what it is — but it's not that."
Pandiscio said that because of this vehicle of manipulation, there are "realities that are being created that don't exist," citing as an example the narrative surrounding last week's proposed teacher cuts and subsequent restoration.
"I proposed some reductions, and the school committee was hanging on to a $300,000 audit that they couldn't afford," said Pandiscio. "They thought they could have an audit and good schools, so what I did is point out to them, they could try, but we have to cut all these teachers."
The superintendent said this forced the school committee into a box where they had to cut the audit, which is now going forward in phases with the first stage capped at $50,000.
"It was the only rational thing to do," said Pandiscio. "So they knew that on Thursday night he's going to restore teachers — they had the paper in their hand."
Meanwhile, both online and in the community, public outcry was building over the potential loss of teachers — eight of which were from Holden elementary schools.
Yet Pandiscio said reasonable parents were manipulated into thinking they had to argue for teachers to come back, even though "there was a piece of paper in everybody's hand that already had all the teachers back."
"It's not just that they're pissed at me, and they disagree with me — be pissed, I don't care. They can be mad, but it's the manipulation that's sending me to the moon. I've never been in a circumstance in my life where people are able to so manipulate the truth," he said.
Pandiscio also addressed the letter written by Holden resident Jason Newton to Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, which has been circulating throughout the community.
"It would have you believe that there was a $1.2 million error — that's true — but by some imagination that I can't even fathom, the $1.2 million error is a conspiracy, and we have somehow enlisted the support of an auditor in order to cover up some malfeasance."
While Pandiscio understands that it sounds good, he said it doesn't bear up to any fact line.
"Conspiracies are usually hidden," he said. "A conspiracy would have been, I come to work one day, find a $1.2 million error, and say 'we're screwed,' head down to accounting, tell everybody in accounting to change the books, fix the books and then hope when the auditor comes in they don't see the fix in the books. Then we fill out our end of the year report, give it to the school committee and we're on our way. That's a conspiracy."
Conversely, Pandiscio said he immediately shined a light on the error after its discovery.
"The first thing my paranoid mind goes through is, you can't let anybody think this is a cover-up, or you're screwed," he said. "There's no cover up here, the facts don't support there's a cover-up, 28 years of working honestly in the public don't support a cover-up, and the clear actions of a person saying 'we have a problem' don't represent a cover-up. If you're going to have a conspiracy, you do your deed and you don't tell anybody — I told everybody."
The superintendent said he did so because he believes the public deserves to know how their money is being spent.
The problem the district faced was "$1.2 million of goods and services purchased lawfully and appropriately by purchasing standards by the Wachusett Regional School District," for which they were then responsible.
With the money already charged to the general fund, Pandiscio said the two ways to deal with the sitution were to either find charge the expense to another account in a systematic way, or to be paralyzed in action and eventually have to charge the expense to Fiscal Year 2013.
"We do charge-backs every year," he said. "If we didn't do our routine charge-backs every year, we'd always be out of balance. We always charge things back to grants and the revolving fund. This was unanticipated charge-backs. If you went and talked to a CPA, they'd say, 'yeah this is what you do.' We've just never done it for this reason, and in this volume at this time of year."
Pandiscio also addressed the accusation of the district having "two sets of books."
While district auditor Powers and Sullivan stated that the cause of the error appeared to be "due to the fact that the internal spreadsheet used by the Business Manager to monitor budgetary spending was not routinely compared and reconciled to the MUNIS system" and management decisions were made utilizing the perceived available budget amounts based on the incorrect data, Pandiscio stressed this does not equate is to having two sets of books as has been suggested.
"There's one set of books," he said, explaining that because MUNIS cannot account for every transaction made, it requires human interpretation in an excel spreadsheet to "ascribe fact and things that are happening outside of the general fund to things that happen inside the general fund — because it's not as simple as a checkbook."
"To not deal with spreadsheets is unavoidable," he said. "If you talk to business managers, they would say this is not a good thing, but they wouldn't say 'oh my God there are two sets of books,' they'd say, 'do you know how many times I deal with spreadsheets? and oh, jeez, you've got to be careful.'"
Yet Pandiscio stressed that he doesn't believe this is not a problem, and that he owns the mistake.
"I know what I'm guilty of, and it's not malfeasance, and it's not conspiracy," he said.
The Wachusett Regional School Committee will meet again on Aug. 20 at 7 p.m. in the Media Center at Wachusett Regional High School.