CUMBERLAND, Maine — After deadlocking earlier this month on paying for school security equipment that had already been installed, the School Administrative District 51 Board of Directors approved the purchase Monday in a second vote.
The School Board voted 7-1 to authorize the full project payment of nearly $276,000 to Surveillance Specialties, or SURV, a Westbrook company, which installed the equipment earlier this year.
Co-Chairman Jeff Porter, who voted in opposition, said after the meeting that he was uncomfortable with a proposed lease-to-purchase payment method. Instead, he wanted to use existing surplus funds to pay for the entire obligation.
He also said he wants to see stronger controls on how district money is spent in the future.
The approximately $110,000 labor portion of the project is already budgeted in fiscal 2013. Administrators had proposed funding the nearly $166,000 remaining in equipment costs through a six-year lease-to-purchase program, at about $29,000 a year, starting in fiscal 2014, according to Finance Director Scott Poulin.
But now that the entire project is to be funded at this time, funds left over at the end of fiscal 2013 can be applied to the $166,000 in equipment costs. If not enough money is left over to cover that amount, the district would have to take money from its fund balance to make up the difference.
The board voted 4-4 May 6 on the question after a lengthy and often heated discussion. The situation raised doubts among members of the board and the public about the transparency of the school department, and its compliance with board policies as it rushed to finish installation of the increasingly expensive system.
After last December’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., prompted a review of existing security systems in SAD 51 schools, Superintendent Robert Hasson in January presented the School Board with an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000 for an improved system. The system included picture identification cards and swipe machines to allow visitors to enter the buildings.
The cost eventually multiplied to nearly $276,000 for a visitor management system.
Porter and Co-Chairman Bill Richards met with SURV, Hasson and Poulin after the May 6 meeting.
“Whether we agreed with what we spent, the contractors did what they were instructed to do,” Porter said.
Board members discussed bringing an independent auditor in to review the system.
Member Jim Moulton agreed that SURV should be paid, but that “the board has some responsibility tied to that. … This happened on our watch; we should deal with it on our watch.”
He called for a clear bid policy, with “a line in the sand.”
“I’d like to see this policy have a threshold of a certain number,” Moulton said, adding that “if you go over that number, first of all the board has to approve it.”
He noted that “obviously, our policy wasn’t right, our procedures weren’t right … . You can’t go five or six times the amount and not say something isn’t wrong.”
“I want to know what happened, I want to know who’s accountable, and then we’ll deal with it,” Moulton said, adding later, “Did people violate the policy? … That’s a personnel issue; that’s an issue that has to be handled behind closed doors.”
Hasson said earlier this month that the security equipment was about keeping students and staff safe, and that he had to move quickly, particularly since a review of the previous system showed multiple cases where doors were left open and when unidentified people entered buildings without being screened.
The elevated cost includes a system that provides a photo ID to every employee, as well as for 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 has been fitted with electric latches and controllers programmed for timed access, can be monitored via computers.
A phone video system allows non-card holders to be seen before being permitted to enter, and cameras throughout each building are monitored by the school resource officer and other administrators.
Poulin has 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 has 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 superintendent has acknowledged that his mistake “was that I didn’t keep the board informed. 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.
A section of the School Board’s policies pertaining to bidding and purchasing requirements states that 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.
But 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.”