In split vote, board limits contracts superintendent can sign

02/11/2015 12:00 PM |
Riverhead school board member Lori Hulse pitches the need to limit the kinds of contracts the district superintendent can sign without board approval at a board meeting Tuesday night. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Riverhead school board member Lori Hulse pitches the need to limit the kinds of contracts the district superintendent can sign without board approval at a board meeting Tuesday night. (Credit: Paul Squire)

The Riverhead school board voted to limit the kinds of contracts Superintendent Nancy Carney can sign without needing board authorization, arguing that it protects taxpayers and adds extra oversight to limit mistakes.

The superintendent had been able to sign off on contracts under $25,000 without board approval. That limit was decreased to $10,000 or less.

The split vote — 4 to 3 — came after some members vehemently opposed changing policy mid-year, while those in support invoked the need to protect taxpayers.

The issue first came up at a July board meeting, when board member Lori Hulse pitched lowering the limit to $5,000. Ms. Hulse again brought up lowering the scope of the contracts in November, and though the board didn’t take any action then, Ms. Hulse spoke with the district’s attorney.

Allowing the superintendent to approve contracts without school board approval has had a controversial past. The last change came in 2010, when the school board reduced the amount from $100,000 to $25,000.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Ms. Hulse said she reviewed contracts approved by the superintendent and found that none would have been delayed had they been approved by the board first. She also pointed to a mistake in a contract related to an hourly rate being paid that Ms. Carney authorized without the board seeing it first.

“We would have caught that if we had reviewed it,” she said.

Ms. Hulse said the district’s attorney advised her that the board should lower the limit to somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000. At issue, she said, was the board’s duty to watch over taxpayer money.

“I’m not saying that there is wrongdoing going on,” she said. “I’m saying we are guarding against having problems down the road. We are guarding against mistakes in contracts that should have been picked up. We are guarding against disallowing public comment when we should be allowing public comment.”

“We’re here to represent the taxpayers, people,” board member Tom Carson agreed.

But other board members, like vice president Susan Koukounas, said it didn’t make sense to change policy in the middle of a school year, and proposed they discuss the limit again in July.

“I truly feel that we’re belaboring a non-issue,” she said before voting against new limits. Board member Christopher Dorr also opposed the idea, saying Ms. Carney and the district admins knew best what kind of contracts were needed.

Board president Greg Meyer served as the swing vote, initially voting against a $5,000 limit proposed by Ms. Hulse.

“Sitting on the audit committee and knowing how the district has been operating … I know the district is being run the right way,” he said. But Mr. Meyer later backed the $10,000 limit that ultimately passed after it was proposed by Mr. Carson when the first vote failed.

Ms. Koukounas, Mr. Dorr and board member Amelia Lantz all voted against the limits.

After the meeting, Ms. Carney said the vote was the board’s decision and that she had no problem with the new limit.

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