Lawrence School Committee Bills Taxpayers for Fine Dining

Tom Duggan

For the past three years members of the Lawrence School Committee have been billing the taxpayers for plush dining at the city’s most expensive restaurant: One Mill Street.

Then School Committeemen Noah Shannon, Pedro Arce, Suzanne Piscitello, Nancy Kennedy and current member George Gonzalez all dined with Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy and his staff after school board meetings running up tabs worth over $1,200.00.

Documents obtained by The Valley Patriot show that state taxpayers treated members of the Lawrence School Committee to more than a dozen expensive meals between 2001-2003.

Meal reimbursement receipts show School Board members helped themselves to veal, sirloin steak, calamari, pork chops, duck, steak salad, garlic shrimp, mussels, scallops, spinach chicken, assorted appetizers and other various menu items. The meals were then billed to the Lawrence Public Schools which receives 100% of it’s funding from the state and federal government.

While Superintendent Laboy’s $156,000 a year contract does not include a meal allowance, he says that some of his expenses are reimbursable. “I don’t have a meal allowance but it is accepted practice for me to be reimbursed for certain expenses as long as they are reasonable and sensible,” he said.

School Committee members, on the other hand, do not have that luxury. According to the School Committee policy (B-18) “School Committee members shall receive no compensation for their services. However, upon submitting vouchers and supporting bills for expenses incurred in carrying out specific services previously authorized by the Committee, Committee members may be reimbursed from district funds.” This never took place regarding meal receipts from One Mill Street.

Instead, some School Committee members took advantage of their position as members of the School Committee Finance subcommittee by eating at One Mill Street and then signed off on the meal receipts as legitimate educational expenses.

Laboy said he submitted the School Committee meal receipts because it was the least he could do for them. “These people (School Committee members) put in a lot of hours and they work very hard for our children. I think buying them a meal is the least we can do for them after a long meeting. The School Committee members are not compensated in any way, shape or form for their service. I don’t find it offensive or excessive to pay for a person’s meal when they work so hard.”

The problem is, Laboy didn’t pay for the meal, state taxpayers did; a fact that angered some current board members who demanded repayment for the meals. School Committeeman Michael Sweeney said “each member who received a free meal should pay back every penny to the children of Lawrence.”

“I think their actions are reprehensible,” Sweeney said of Piscitello, Gonzalez, Shannon, Kennedy and Arce. “Particularly Ms. Piscitello. Of all people, she should be writing a check out to the school department for everything she ate. I also think the Ethics Commission should be informed about this.  They should pay the money back with interest and issue a written apology to the school children and the citizens of Lawrence.”

On at least one occasion, a quorum of the School Committee (six of the seven members) met at One Mill Street for what Laboy listed on receipts as a “School Committee meeting/Discussion at One Mill Street.” (see right) With a majority of the board present, Laboy admitted the meeting was not publicly posted as required by the state’s open meeting law because, he said, “it was a social event.”

Asked why he submitted meal receipts to the taxpayers totaling $141.25 for a “social” gathering he admitted, “It was partially business. Business was discussed.”

Mayor Michael Sullivan who sits as chairman of the School Committee said he doesn’t believe Superintendent Laboy did anything wrong, however, he added, “I think the members of the finance committee who signed off on those warrants should pay the money back. Absolutely.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate. As political leaders we have to be held to a higher standard. If it is outside the educational setting it isn’t right that their meals should be treated by the taxpayers.”

Sullivan said that the School Committee policy must be adhered to. ”It all flows back to the policy. We have a policy and we all need to abide by the policy.”

School Committeeman Jimmy Vittorioso said he was outraged when he learned about the School Committee meals.

“It’s a disgrace. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money. I would never go out to dinner using the people’s money. That’s a serious conflict of interest. For committee members to go to Mill Street and send the taxpayers a bill is outrageous. I actually agree with Mayor Sullivan, they should pay the money back.”

School Committee member Amy McGovern said that she had only gone to Mill Street “once” with fellow board members and left early when she realized there was a quorum because she felt uncomfortable with the whole situation. “I know they do this all the time but I was very uncomfortable with it,” McGovern said. “All I had was a diet coke and I left a few dollars on the table to pay for my drink. I just don’t think it’s right. It’s abominable.”

Heidi Pearlman, spokesman for the Department of Education said the matter of School Committee members getting free meals is an issue for the Ethics Commission not the Department of Education. “Was it appropriate for them to have meetings at an expensive restaurant,” she asked rhetorically, “probably not. But this is a local issue for local officials to deal with. This is not an issue for the Department of Education.”

It was a stark contrast to the position taken by the Department of Education when misspending allegations against former superintendents Jim Scully and Mae Gaskins surfaced in previous administrations.

In 1987 the Department of Education threatened the School Committee to fire Jim Scully or they would take over the Lawrence School System. The Department of Education was also intimately involved in the Gaskins firing.

Ironically, former Superintendent Mae Gaskins was fired, in part because she billed the taxpayers for 32 bags of Cape Cod potato chips (totaling $77.13), a meal at Palmers Restaurant in Andover ($75.57) and a meal order from Lawton’s Hot Dog Stand which included two hot dogs, a large order of fried clams, a large order of onion rings and ice tea for a total of $16.35

At the time of Gaskins’ firing, then School Committeeman Suzanne Piscitello (who is listed on several meal receipts at Mill Street) led the charge against Gaskins for what she called “a disgraceful waste of our children’s money,” which she said was “robbing our children of the educational dollars they need for their future.”

Piscitello told the Eagle Tribune in January of 2000 that the precedent set by the firing of Jim Scully for what she called “questionable expenses” had to be maintained by Gaskins and future superintendents. “You can’t have one standard for one Superintendent and another standard for another superintendent.”

Sweeney said Piscitello’s involvement with the One Mill Street meals was “the height of hypocrisy.”

“It’s obvious that public office isn’t the place for either one of them (Piscitello and Arce). As alleged professionals they should know better. If the Gaskins case was still in court we would be in a boatload of trouble on this. I mean, not only is Piscitello a former assistant superintendent and vice president of the School Committee, but her added role in the Gaskins firing pours a can of gasoline on the fire.”

Sweeney said the revelations about free meals at One Mill Street explains an ongoing question regarding his former colleagues, “…at least now we know why School Committee Meetings used to last only half an hour. They all wanted to get to Mill Street before last call.”

Suzanne Piscitello did not return calls from The Valley Patriot to be interviewed for this story.

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