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Did security trump policy, transparency in SAD 51?

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Did security trump policy, transparency in SAD 51?

School Board refuses to pay for new equipment

CUMBERLAND — After a lengthy and often heated discussion Monday about a new security system purchased for School Administrative District 51, the School Board deadlocked over the nearly $166,000 equipment lease/purchase.

The 4-4 vote defeated the proposal.

Now, Co-Chairmen Jeff Porter and Bill Richards will meet with Superintendent Robert Hasson and Finance Director Scott Poulin to produce a plan to either negotiate a lower price with the system vendor or convince board members to endorse the system, Hasson said Tuesday.

The proposal could then return to the board for another vote, he said.

Either way, the episode has left members of the board and the public with doubts about the School Department's transparency and its compliance with board policies as it rushed to complete the increasingly expensive system.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., last December prompted a review of existing security systems in SAD 51 schools.

Hasson in January presented the School Board with an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000 for a system including picture identification cards and swipe machines to allow visitors to enter the buildings. The cost eventually multiplied to $275,000 for a well-working visitor management system, he said.

"We were looking at these, and other measures," Hasson said last week. "... As we got further into the project, it became clear that there were other needs, and this was based upon feedback from the security company, more importantly from law enforcement, and our own ... administrative staff and others, who pointed out that in order for us to have a visitor management system that works, there were going to have to be some other measures done."

System specs

The resulting system – obtained from a Westbrook company called Surveillance Specialties, or SURV – provides a photo ID to every employee, as well as police, fire and rescue personnel. Each card is programmed for specific doors, and cards for former employees can be deactivated. Each door in the district, which have been fitted with electric latches and controllers programmed for timed access, can be monitored on a computer screen.

A phone video system is also in place for non-card holders to be seen before being allowed entry, and cameras throughout each building are monitored by the school resource officer and other administrators.

In an emergency, all doors can be locked down with the push of a button.

The system also came at a much higher cost than originally presented: about $275,000. Almost $166,000 of that was proposed Monday for equipment only, to be funded through a six-year lease/purchase program, at nearly $31,000 a year, starting in fiscal 2014.

The approximately $110,000 remaining for labor could not be funded through a lease/purchase agreement; that amount was taken from the fiscal 2013 budget, thanks to savings reaped from refunding debt and energy cost reductions, according to Poulin.

"It's keeping kids safe, it's keeping the staff safe, and I needed to move quickly on it," Hasson said, noting that a review of the previous system revealed multiple cases where doors were left open and when unidentified people entered without being screened.

Additional monitors, cameras and servers were also required for the new system, which increased the price, Hasson said.

"The $275,000 ... that was time and materials; there was no contract," Hasson said. "... We were moving very quickly, because at one point I wanted to have (the system) in and implemented before February vacation. ... I knew we had a situation where we had people coming into the buildings that we didn't have control around."

Poulin said administrators did not know the ultimate cost at the time, and that "we were doing time and materials as we rolled along. We also had community members who wanted to know what we were doing to ensure that students were safe."

Hasson said there was no overall written proposal, and that "it was just, 'go ahead and do that work.' It was moving very fast, because we wanted to get (the system) in.

"The mistake that was made was that I didn't keep the board informed," Hasson said. "The project was moving very quickly, there was new information coming in, and I should have kept them informed as to the movement on the number."

He said he was informed of the price hike in mid-March by a board member who had heard the cost was much more than originally estimated. Hasson confirmed the price increase, but by that point the work had been done, and the system was in operation. He said he informed the School Board of the change soon afterward at a budget roll-out.

Board, public reactions

Several board members criticized the lack of information.

"This board has a fiduciary responsibility, as well as a number of other responsibilities," said Porter, who on Monday filed a Freedom of Access Act request for all documents related to the security update. "... Our policies were not followed. They were blatantly, and wantonly, ignored. ... This should have gone out to bid."

He added that the board should have held a public hearing to air its thoughts on the matter.

"I do not believe the security system that we have in place in any way makes us safer ... I think it makes some people feel safer," Porter said. "... Reasonable people can differ. We've never had that opportunity as a board to have that discussion. That's truly, truly unfortunate."

Cumberland Town Councilor Bill Stiles acknowledged that the issue is an emotional one, and wondered why there was such a rush to install the equipment.

"Amounts of money like this should have gone out to bid," Stiles said. "... The board is playing with my money, all of our money. And they have a fiduciary responsibility to be sure they spend that carefully. Did that happen by not going out to bid? Did the board have a chance to say, 'we want to spend that money?'"

Marnie Dean of Cumberland, chairwoman of the Greely Parent Teacher Organization, said security was a concern of parents before the Newtown tragedy.

"After Newtown, a point of concern became a call to action," Dean said. "In large part, the people who ... talked to me were very pleased with the district's response, and the quick response. ... What's the hurry? The hurry is, our children walk in there every day."

Dean said she has not received any email messages from people upset about the system and its cost. "Is that a universal opinion?" she asked. "Obviously not. I understand that."

Board member Bob Vail said he supported the $50,000 card-entry system, but "had I had an opportunity to approve a system that we have in place today, the conversation would have been much different. ... I would have wanted to reflect a little bit on what I was putting in there, what I was getting."

"I'm still uncomfortable with the expenditure here," Vail added. "I'm not sure what we've bought, I'm not sure how it operates."

Board member Jim Moulton said there was a communication problem. "What bid processes are applicable?" he asked.

According to a section of the School Board's policies pertaining to bidding and purchasing requirements, the district must "competitively bid purchases of equipment, supplies, materials or services" of more than $25,000, and if bidding is not used, the superintendent can seek requests for proposals for purchases of more than $25,000.

However, a paragraph in that section notes that the superintendent "may forego (sic) the competitive bid or RFP process only when he/she determines that quality, expertise, time factors, or other important considerations outweigh the possible benefits of bidding or requesting proposals. In each such case, the Board shall be informed of the Superintendent's decision and the reasons for it in advance of entering into a contract."

"In this particular case, we have a specialized company on-hand who is our security vendor," Poulin said.

Hasson, in a prepared statement Monday, said the "choice of contractor was determined based on past experience, reputation for quality, expertise, and the ability to complete the project in a timely manner. Moreover, the arrangement with the vendor, SURV, is non-proprietary. As we move forward, we are
not limited to this contractor to provide ongoing servicing, if needed."

Board member Martha Leggat said she was initially a little skeptical after the Newtown shootings about a quick move to a security system. Talking to teachers in the district made her rethink her original assessment, she explained.

"I can see how, in order for the system to work effectively, more things continually needed to happen to make all the pieces fit together so that we weren't just sort of doing a patchwork job," she said.

Leggat added, "I'm still not convinced that everything that we've put in place is necessarily going to stop something like Sandy Hook, and yet from talking to teachers (and) parents ... it seems already some of these systems ... have helped prevent or (have) identified lower-level problems which could have escalated into bigger problems."

She expressed trust for Hasson and Poulin, "because I've seen their track record ... I feel like the spending that I've witnessed in this district has been deliberate, thoughtful and always conservative."

Board member Jim Bailinson called the security spending "necessary and appropriate in the context in which it happened. I think the administration should have kept the board better informed, and Bob has forthrightly admitted that he erred. ... But it's important for the board to move on."

Hasson said last week that if the School Board rejected the lease/purchase plan, it would either vote again or the district would inform SURV it was unable to pay the bill, and the company would remove the system.

"We should protect our students, but what was done here was wrong," said North Yarmouth Selectman Paul Napolitano. "So fix the policy and move on. ... You're not going to take the system out. You've got to pay the bill."

Virginia Dwyer, Bailinson, Richards, and Leggat voted for the lease/purchase, while Bill Dunnett, Moulton, Vail and Porter opposed it.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.