Mahar school district tightens belt in wake of town fraud

Students leave school at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange.

Students leave school at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


Staff Writer

Published: 05-22-2024 3:11 PM

Modified: 05-22-2024 7:17 PM

ORANGE — The Orange Elementary and Ralph C. Mahar Regional school committees obliged their town’s Selectboard on Monday by revisiting the budgets they’re proposing at the Annual Town Meeting, but only Mahar voted to further trim costs as asked.

Because of $338,000 paid in fraudulent invoices over the summer, the town is in dire financial straits. The overall budget that Town Administrator Matthew Fortier proposes is $26.7 million, compared to $26.9 million for the current fiscal year. This includes no money for the Wheeler Memorial and Moore-Leland libraries, which may be forced to close next month.

The Selectboard, unsatisfied with the amount of cuts the school committees had agreed to make to accommodate the budget crisis, voted unanimously last week to ask them to take another look. The Orange Elementary School Committee met in Fisher Hill School’s media center and the Mahar committee convened in the Mahar library on Monday night.

Mahar committee members gave their blessing to a nearly $15.8 million budget for fiscal year 2025, representing a 1.35% increase over the current fiscal year.

Mahar’s original number was $16.33 million — a 4.75% increase. Kate Woodward was the only committee member to vote against the new proposed budget. Chair Peter Cross told the Recorder the new numbers are about $80,000 less than what Orange was most recently assessed by Mahar.

Michele Tontodonato, director of finance and operations for Ralph C. Mahar Regional and Union 73 school districts, said the new cuts mean Mahar will lose School Resource Officer Chad Softic, who has worked in the school since 2005. She said Softic has become an integral part of the community and his loss will be challenging.

The new figures remove $52,406 from the proposed budget. Cross explained that is about half of Softic’s salary. The loss of the SRO position means Police Chief James Sullivan will have to shuffle money around his department and lay off at least one newer office in order to keep Softic fully employed.

“We gave our good-faith efforts,” Tontodonato said, adding that a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and creativity went into the newly proposed figures.

Orange Elementary maintains original budget

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In April, the Orange Elementary School Committee (OES) approved a nearly $8.88 million budget that included the reductions of 3½ positions. On Monday, committee members shot down a lower $8.65 million proposed budget based on the town’s request for a $1.1 million reduction in both the elementary school and Mahar budgets. Chair Mallory Ellis and member Yarelyn Ramos-Martinez voted in favor of the newly proposed figures while Vice Chair Josefa Scherer, Secretary Jessica Reske and member Frank Hains opted against it.

Elizabeth Zielinski, superintendent of the Ralph C. Mahar Regional and Union 73 school districts, told the Recorder that the OES Committee’s second proposed figures included an additional reduction of two staff members, as well as cuts in various other line items. During the meeting, Zielinski mentioned that union members are not inclined or willing to forgo their due pay increases.

“Our school community cannot afford to cut any more from our budget, especially in the form of educators or support staff. The budget that we operate on and the services it is able to provide are already below what the children of our community need and deserve,” library trustee and teacher Christine Mullen read during the OES meeting. “I am a firm believer that education is the way out of the cycle of poverty. If we want to create a town that thrives and brings in revenue, we need to break that cycle. With the right resources and the proper funding, we could be educating children that can revitalize our town. Invest in our future.”

Orange Finance Committee member Kathy Reinig said this is not a one-year problem that Orange faces.

“We have had to pull back. We used an awful lot of free cash … currently in the budget to keep up with properly paying staff who have been underpaid in the town Orange,” she said. “If you’ve looked at anything, the town of Orange has underpaid staff for decades. And so we worked hard to kind of right-pay some of them and many of them are still lower than industry standards, but they can accept the numbers they’re getting now.

“We hope that things will improve, but we can’t say that they’ll improve quickly, and we had to get it under control at some point, and no time like the present or it only gets worse,” she continued. “So, I’m sorry that this had to happen. I sure hope that the end result is going to be more streamlined.”

Town hit by fraud

Fortier previously told the Recorder that the fraud involves the town paying $338,000 in fraudulent invoices last summer, which town officials learned about in the fall.

“We got hit for more than that. It was up over $800,000, total. But the banks were able to stop some of those payments,” he said after the most recent Selectboard meeting.

The matter is being investigated by the Orange Police Department, the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office and the FBI, which recently assigned an agent to the case. Town officials have declined to disclose the fraudulent entity the town was paying.

Many have advocated for funding the Wheeler Memorial and Moore-Leland libraries.

Jason Sullivan-Flynn, who was promoted from children’s librarian to Wheeler Memorial Library director on May 4, said young families use libraries to learn and socialize, and job hunters use the computers to work on their résumés and apply for positions. He also said people of all ages enjoy borrowing books, movies, video games and other items.

Sullivan-Flynn noted that the lack of a library would result in the town not meeting the state’s municipal appropriation requirement. This means Orange residents would not be allowed to check out materials in any other library in Massachusetts because public libraries are supposed to be part of a reciprocal relationship.

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