Passing the buck(s)
It’s not exactly as if they were deviously cooking the books at Boston City Hall and the Boston Public Schools. It’s more like someone lost track of all the index cards and napkins where some financials for a multibillion dollar enterprise were being recorded.
And though the feds just hit the city with a fine of nearly $1 million for the improper use and management of funds — most of which occurred in city offices outside the School Department — it seems the buck stops with Superintendent Tommy Chang and 78-year-old grandfather Ray Flynn, who last held the reins at City Hall during Bill Clinton’s first year in the White House.
The problems uncovered by the federal Internal Revenue Service audit included schools’ improper use of student activity fees to pay employees for additional work, as well as nonpayment of Medicare payroll taxes for decades for some employees outside the School Department who had improperly been considered exempt from the assessments.
Some of the problems dated back to practices begun in the 1980s, and Mayor Marty Walsh seemed to pin the blame there for not nipping things in the bud.
Flynn pointed out to the Globe that for most of his 10 years in office the school department operated independently of the mayor’s office, and he said outside rating agencies gave the city positive audits at the time he left office in 1993. It was only a year earlier, in 1992, that the city moved to a system of mayoral control of the schools.
The city first learned of problems uncovered by the federal audit last March. Schools superintendent Tommy Chang sent principals a memo in June alerting them, but the School Committee only found out about the audit last week, when the Globe made an inquiry to the School Department. Walsh says he learned of the audit a few months ago but claims to only have found out last week that the city paid out nearly $1 million in penalties.
Herald columnist Joe Battenfeld’s reaction to that? “Sure. Right.”
He’s not buying that timeline, saying Walsh is “playing dumb” on the matter and finds it “a little convenient” that the news only emerged after Walsh was safely reelected to a new term. “The newly re-elected mayor would have his constituents believe that he only found out about the fines — which the city forked over at City Hall on Nov. 7 — just last week, which would mean he is completely out of touch.”
On Tuesday, Walsh tried to deflect the issue of whether he was mad at Chang. “I wouldn’t say angry, but I was concerned about it,” Walsh said on WGBH radio, noting that problems dated back many years and that the audit of 2014 practices looked a time before Chang had even arrived in Boston.
By yesterday, the mayor had changed his tune. “I didn’t get the findings myself until last week,” Walsh told reporters. “The superintendent had the findings. The School Department had the findings. I didn’t have them. That’s where there was a miscommunication — a big miscommunication — it’s something I’m not happy about.”
But Walsh did not address the broader issue of problems outside the School Department. The school-related problems only accounted for tiny fraction of the penalties levied by the feds — $30,000 of the $944,000 paid by the city.
The latest tension between the mayor and superintendent had one Boston public schools parent raising a question that has been percolating quietly around town.
“I’m not a big Tommy Chang fan. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has been put in untenable positions many times,” Kevin Murray told the Globe. “I suspect he will take this to a certain point, but then he will take his talents elsewhere.”
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