Watchdog organization to tackle policy first

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NAUGATUCK — Though it’s still unclear how their relationship might ultimately play out, the Board of Education and the newly-formed Citizens’ Audit Committee, an independent oversight group, will start butting heads sometime next month.

The committee is a brainchild of Dr. Armand Fusco, a veteran educator and author who fathered the concept and has fostered the formation of about a dozen such groups in the state.

Simply put, the goal of any citizens’ audit committee is to provide independent and objective oversight to the budgeting and spending practices of government entities and to ensure all resources are being used efficiently and effectively. A committee reviews public documents at some length, prepares reports and presents findings to boards of education, which, the committees hope, use the information to implement best practices.

Fusco met with about 15 borough residents in Town Hall Feb. 24 to offer a preliminary training session, which ran almost three hours. He had prepared a customized presentation with recommendations for the group’s first moves.

Anne Ciacciarella, founder of the 1,300-member Our Kids Come First Facebook group, originally contacted Fusco last year to enlist his help. An organizational meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, after printing, when Ciacciarella said members would sign written commitments and elect leaders.

Ciacciarella said members would be matched to specific tasks based on their backgrounds.

“We have people in the group who are former educators and former Board of Education employees,” she said. “We have a lot of finance people with different backgrounds in budgeting; we even have someone from the non-profit world, a mom, people with legal backgrounds … it’s a very diverse group of people, but we’re all there for the same purpose.”

That purpose, she said, is to ensure borough taxpayers’ dollars are being spent accountably in the school system without compromising the quality of its educational program.

“I think it’s advantageous to the Board of Ed. to work with us as a Citizens’ Audit Committee, to work with us as a community, to work with us as parents and taxpayers,” Ciacciarella said. “What we’re trying to do is make our community better, to make our public school system better in Naugatuck. When you have a better public school system, you have a better community. … Everybody wins.”

The committee’s first steps, as per Fusco’s recommendations, will be to review the BOE’s adopted policy manual and to analyze just how well the board is adhering to it.

Dr. Armand Fusco, above, a veteran educator, author and oversight activist, offered members of Naugatuck's first Citizens Audit Committee, an independent watchdog group, a formal training period last week
Dr. Armand Fusco, above, a veteran educator, author and oversight activist, offered members of Naugatuck's first Citizens' Audit Committee, an independent watchdog group, formal training last week

At the training session last week, Fusco noted no one holds boards of education–or most government entities, for that matter–to their policies, except themselves. In the words of the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“Who will guard the guards themselves?”; often colloquially rendered, “Who watches the watchmen?”)

Well, the citizens’ committee hopes to fill that role, and Fusco said a detailed policy review can be a powerful first step.

“Always use the words they said they believed in [in their policy],” Fusco said last Wednesday. “Throw it back at them … [Policies often become] meaningless words; rhetoric.”

Ciacciarella said the members are raring to go, “ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.”

“Basically how [Fusco] explained it to us is that we will identify these areas, which he has already identified, policy being the first thing; and we’ll go through a package with all these questions we have to ask,” she said. “It takes about 30 days to go through the policy. … We then make a meeting with the Board of Education, and say, ‘This is what we’ve gone through. This is our independent review of your policy.’”

Cooperation, conciliation and progress—or just more animosity?

Naugatuck Board of Education members had been largely unaware of the formation of the independent audit group and were, for that reason, hesitant to comment on it. They said it wasn’t something the board had officially discussed or taken a stance on.

According to its policy manual, which was adopted in 1992 and revised in 2003, one of the board’s main community relations goals is “to encourage the sharing of resources among civic and community organizations for the benefit of the school system.” It later notes “The board encourages the involvement of citizens as advisors and resource people”—but only so long it “endorses appropriate advisory committees for various district programs and activities … provide[s] guidelines and delineate[s] its responsibilities and authority, [and] the Chairman of the Board of Education … appoint[s] all committee members.”

Fusco denounced this provision, saying, “You don’t want to be appointed. You want to be independent. That’s the only way you’re going to stay objective.”

Board Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan was wary that an antagonistic relationship might evolve between the board and the citizens’ group.

“There seems to be a lot of hostility and criticism of the board at these board meetings,” she said of recent public comment at regular meetings. “That doesn’t necessarily put Board of Education members in a very congenial mood to work with people when they initially approach you like that.”

She said the board’s yearly fiscal audits, which are conducted by the town auditor, and the board’s assumption of borough Controller Wayne McAllister as acting business manager should provide adequate transparency.

Fusco opined at his training session that such fiscal audits “mean nothing. Absolutely nothing. Don’t be fooled when they say they’ve been audited and come back clean,” he said.

He cited the example of Roslyn, N.Y., where the school board passed fiscal audits while embezzling more than $11 million.

Glenn Connan, a prospective member of the Naugatuck Citizens’ Audit Committee, former auditor at an accounting firm and current vice president and chief financial officer of a non-profit organization he declined to name, was critical of the board’s one-time bookkeeping but was quick to commend McAllister as “honest” and a “person with integrity.”

But Connan sees the board proper in a different light.

“They don’t treat [the school system] as their own business. They’ve made that clear,” he said. “If I kept my books the way the Board of Ed. keeps their books, I’d be out of a job.”

As far as how the board might respond to the Citizens’ Audit Committee’s findings, Connan isn’t very optimistic.

“It’s going to be interesting to see the Board of Ed.’s response,” he said. “I would expect them to welcome us with open arms … but I don’t think that’ll happen, especially with the chair [Donovan], who thumbs her nose at everyone.”

Donovan noted the state legislature clearly delineated powers of municipal governments and their respective school boards so that “boards of education would not feel obligated to follow the suggestions of the government and the citizens if they were trying to make decisions in the best interest of the children.” But at the same time, “It’s not that we’re not listening to their concerns;” she said, “it’s certainly something we take into consideration.”

Dave Heller, a member of the school board, echoed some of Donovan’s concerns but expressed a slightly more positive outlook, saying, “I would assume we’d be willing to work with anybody who wanted to build and support and promote education in our town.” Contrarily, he said, “I don’t know if we need another group out there who’s going to say ‘Everything you’re doing is wrong’ and everything is negative, negative, negative … If somebody has a good idea and it helps improve our educational program, then that’s great. If the purpose is only to be negative and complain about the system without offering any alternatives, I don’t know what purpose that would serve.”

Ciacciarella said the point would be just that—to study public documents pertaining to board policy, budgeting, spending and curriculum in order to make informed recommendations to the board. But she knows it might be a rocky road to conciliation.

“Are we going to ruffle some feathers? Absolutely, and I think we already have,” she said. “Our group has posed questions to the Board of Ed. that have never been posed before. We’ve asked questions that nobody has dared to ask before. I think that we have, you know, engaged people to be a part of their community in a way that they can be, that they’re comfortable being a part of … I think information and communication is key to moving our entire town forward, including our educational system.”

Ciacciarella said the citizens’ group would be nonpartisan and that political differences between members wouldn’t become a distraction—a theme she hopes to see echoed by interactions with the Board of Education down the line.

“Since the beginning of this, I have stated publicly that education should not be political,” she said. “Regardless of whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or an unaffiliated voter … this is about our kids; this is about our public school system in Naugatuck.”

The distinction between Ciacciarella, a Democrat and the spouse of a Democratic borough official (Second Deputy Mayor Mike Ciacciarella), and Connan, a self-described conservative, perhaps highlights the apolitical effort best—and perhaps Connan described it best.

“I’ve never seen so many people from so many parties and aspects working together,” he said. “That’s one thing [the BOE’s budget crisis] has done. It’s united the people.”