May 25, 2018
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Sudden departures of superintendent, school district’s business manager spurs questions

By Daniel Hartill, Sun Journal

POLAND, Maine — Dennis Duquette signed a deal in January that would have paid him almost $327,000 over three years to serve as the superintendent of schools in Poland, Mechanic Falls and Minot.

School officials called it a “vote of confidence.”

Then, it all fell apart.

Forty-nine days after Duquette signed the contract extension, the RSU 16 committee placed him and Business Manager Rick Kusturin on leave. A month later, they both resigned. School officials have never explained what happened.

“It’s a personnel matter,” said Interim Superintendent Michael Wilhelm, who was hired to the post even before Duquette and Kusturin officially resigned. “And personnel matters are confidential.”

But stories have been circulating around the three towns. People have been wondering why a superintendent who was so well-liked in January was sent packing in February. And, because the business manager was involved, taxpayers have been wondering whether their money was being spent properly.

Nothing in a host of interviews and information collected by the Sun Journal suggests anything illegal occurred.

However, an examination of RSU 16 financial records shows what some school districts consider liberal use of a debit card issued to Duquette.

In a six-month period, Duquette used his RSU 16 debit card to spend hundreds of dollars at a Maine amusement park and hundreds more on dinners and gift cards for his staff. He even bought tires for his car, an expense for which he later reimbursed the school.

“Those are the types of things that people usually get in trouble on,” said Bill Webster, superintendent of the Lewiston School Department. “Whether it was used inadvertently or in an emergency, it doesn’t look good. Where do you draw the line?”

He understands the public’s desire for transparency, he said.

“The control of money in school districts is a particularly sensitive area,” Webster said. “It’s the public’s money. There has to be a very, very strong argument for the debit card to be used for school business.”

There has been no policy in place at RSU 16 for use of the debit card, Wilhelm said, noting that the district is working on a proposal.

Based on information supplied by Wilhelm at the Sun Journal’s request, in August 2011, Duquette used the debit card to buy $52 worth of children’s CDs at Bull Moose Music and $19 worth of movie tickets at Cinemagic Westbrook for a raffle. He spent $157 at Dick’s Clothing for a recreation department field day. For a central office staff summer event, there were two charges totaling $145.50 at Seacoast Fun Park in Windham and another $88 at Yankee Lanes in Portland.

Wilhelm could not supply more details on the purchases when asked. When pressed for an explanation of the CD purchase — “Was it for an elementary school classroom?” — he sighed. He wasn’t with the school district at the time.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Duquette also spent $400 at DaVinci’s Eatery in Lewiston to buy gift certificates that were raffled as part of his start-of-the-school-year presentation to teachers, Wilhelm said. A $184 charge from Shawnee Peak in Bridgton was listed as “props” for his presentation.

What kind of props were they? Wilhelm said he didn’t know.

In December, on the same day Duquette used the school debit card for the tires, he used it to charge $230 to treat administrators to a Christmas dinner at Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub in Auburn. Two days later, he charged $100 at Seacoast Fun Park and $200 at Webbs Mills Variety, a convenience store on Route 11 in Casco. In both cases, the purchases were for gift certificates given to staff for Christmas, according to the school department’s records.

Such purchases have halted since Wilhelm took over in March. Both Wilhelm and RSU 16’s financial coordinator, Wendy Ritchie, have been issued cards for purchases that can be made no other way, Wilhelm said. However, “Neither [card] has been activated,” he said.

Annual audits of the school’s finances have raised no serious concerns, Wilhelm said.

“Last year’s audit was conducted by Ouellette and Associates of Lewiston,” he said. “There is nothing critical in the audit about debit/credit card purchases or anything else.”

The Sun Journal tried to reach all 15 RSU 16 committee members. Those who answered phone calls said they were directed by the school district’s attorney to answer no questions about the resignations. They were instructed to refer all questions to Wilhelm.

The Sun Journal tried to talk with both Duquette and Kusturin. Duquette did not respond to numerous requests. Kusturin was reached but declined to comment.

Both Duquette and Kusturin severed ties with RSU 16 in April, signing resignation agreements.

Kusturin had a contract that paid him more than $76,000 a year and was slated to last through June 30, 2013. His resignation deal paid him through June 2012. It also gave him a lump-sum payout worth four months of salary. Other provisions included a letter of recommendation signed by school committee member Steve Holbrook and ownership of a laptop and iPad purchased by the school district.

Duquette, whose current contract had an annual salary of $106,000, was due to get a raise to $108,991 beginning July 1 when the new three-year contract began. Instead, he was given five weeks of owed vacation pay and health benefits through June.

The deal also called for the school district to say little about him. If contacted by a possible future employer, the district agreed only to say “Mr. Duquette was employed by RSU 16 as a superintendent from July of 2007 through April 2012.”

School Committee Chairwoman Mary Ella Jones of Poland declined to talk directly about the resignations or the debit card spending. She said she worried that details of Duquette’s and Kusturin’s departures could distract people from Tuesday’s districtwide referendum on the budget.

“I just hope that people are keeping some perspective and looking at all of the positive things that happened in our schools over the past few years,” she said. She mentioned consolidation, the creation of the middle school and changes in adult and alternative education programs.

“Our primary focus here is on the students,” she said.

No one spoken to for this story linked the debit card spending with the resignations.

However, officials for Lewiston and Auburn school systems said they are much more conservative in their use of credit and debit cards.

Creating card-use policies can be challenging, Lewiston’s Webster said. There is little direction for school systems.

The Maine School Management Association, which helps administrators statewide, offers no policy to follow, spokeswoman Victoria Wallack said. Schools must decide for themselves.

Auburn, for example, has one general-purpose credit card and it is kept by Business Manager Jude Cyr.

“It never leaves the business office,” he said. “It’s used predominately when individuals are needing to register for a conference or purchase something that can only be done with a credit card.”

The School Department has avoided having several cards because it can lose control, Cyr said.

Webster’s school department, one of the largest in Maine, runs without a single credit or debit card.

If people do enough planning, there’s no need to bypass processes that approve an expense before its spent, he said.

“We’re subject to budgets,” he said. “We should be planning our purchases.”

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