BOSTON – The Senate on Tuesday took decisive action to end mismanagement and financial abuses at the Commonwealth’s education collaboratives, which help teach children with special needs, Sonia Chang-Díaz announced. With a unanimous vote, the Senate passed legislation that establishes strict oversight and accountability of the state’s 30 institutions.
“In passing this bill today, the Senate affirmed our commitment to tackling issues of urgency and working together to find solutions,” said Senator Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), lead sponsor of the bill. “This bill creates accountability and transparency to prevent deliberate abuses of collaborative funding from ever going unchecked again. It also creates clarity in the law so that collaborative staffs, boards, and member school districts fully understand their responsibilities. With this bill, no one will be able to turn a blind eye to underhanded behavior.”
State officials and the public called for immediate action after investigations last year by the state auditor and inspector general uncovered a serious misuse of funding at the Merrimack Special Education Collaborative and other collaboratives around the state.
“I am grateful for the leadership of Senate President Therese Murray and senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Stephen Brewer in taking swift action to remedy the deficiencies we found within the collaborative system,” Auditor Suzanne Bump said. “I am tremendously pleased that our findings and recommendations have served as catalysts for bringing about these critically needed reforms.”
“We struggle every day with the cost of public education and special education for our children,” Senate President Murray said. “The financial abuses that were found highlight a senseless and egregious misconduct that cheats taxpayers and cheats our children. We vowed to take action, and I want to thank Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and the entire education committee, Senator Stephen Brewer, and our inspector general and state auditor, for all their hard work and recommendations on this bill to make sure these abuses never happen again.”
The legislation will improve the governance and fiscal accountability of the Commonwealth’s network of educational collaboratives by increasing transparency and setting clear standards to ensure that funding for the collaboratives will be used specifically for direct services to students.
Each collaborative will be managed by a board of directors consisting of one person appointed annually by each member school committee or member charter school board, plus one member appointed by the education commissioner. The bill addresses the conflicts of interest surrounding collaboratives and their related nonprofit organizations, through which many of the abuses took place, creating clear requirements for board members and staff.
It prohibits board members from receiving a salary and from serving in any official capacity at a related nonprofit organization.
Further establishing financial oversight and accountability, the bill requires the board of directors to appoint a treasurer who is not a member of the board or an employee of the collaborative. The bill also requires collaboratives to maintain a financial accounting system and authorizes the state education department, auditor and department of revenue to periodically audit or review the records of every education collaborative.
The boards of each education collaborative will also be required to prepare an annual financial report and conduct an independent audit, which will be made publicly available online. Each board must file its annual report and audit with the state education commissioner, auditor, and each member school committee and charter school board.
Related nonprofits must also submit annual audited financial statements to the Attorney General or the state education department. And, the bill makes explicit that collaboratives are subject to the same competitive bidding requirements that school districts must follow when contracting for goods and services.
Other oversight measures put in place by the bill include:
- Requiring board members to complete a training developed by the state education department on the duties and responsibilities of board members;
- Requiring education collaboratives to conform to the new law within 12 months of the effective date of the act;
- Mandating that each collaborative maintain a public website, including a list of board members, copies of the board meeting minutes, and a copy of the collaborative’s founding written agreement with the state; and
- Creating a commission to study the role of collaboratives relative to the state’s K-12 education system and to make recommendations in such areas as services to individuals age 22 and above and the appropriate relationship, if any, between education collaboratives and related organizations.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for further action.