Thursday, May 14, 2015

Khelfaoui Going To Lowell

Khelfaoui Going To Lowell
Winchendon superintendent tapped for city's top school post

Damien Fisher
News Staff Writer

WINCHENDON  Toy Town Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui has accepted the top school administrator position in Lowell as Winchendon faces budget uncertainty heading into the annual Town Meeting this month.

The Lowell School Committee voted Friday evening to hire Dr. Khelfaoui, according to a report in the Lowell Sun. The vote was 4-3 in favor of Dr. Khelfaoui.

“You go where your heart takes you,” he told the Lowell Sun. “And my heart, right now, is definitely doing the best I can do for Lowell.”

Dr. Khelfaoui cut more than a dozen teachers and staff in his final budget for the Winchendon school district in an effort to bring the total fiscal 2016 budget down by $670,000. Those cuts are not enough, however, and Dr. Khelfaoui is looking for almost another half a million dollars from voters at the upcoming meeting.

That includes three warrant articles. The first seeks more than $80,000 to cover unemployment costs after the district laid off the food service staff.

The second article seeks another $160,000 to cover special education costs — which are typically covered through the circuit-breaker fund, but the district has overspent that account.

Finally, the district will ask residents to have the town pay the school’s portion of the state loan payments. The state had loaned Winchendon money to cover it’s $3.4 million deficit, of which the school is responsible for about $2 million. Its annual repayment is more than $207,000.

Dr. Khelfaoui initially proposed closing one of the district’s two elementary schools in an attempt to consolidate costs going into fiscal 2016, but that met with pushback from parents and staff. The Winchendon Teachers Association strongly opposed the proposed closings.

“Morale and support of the Central Office is at its lowest point, and the closing of an elementary school is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” wrote WTA President Heidi Bevacqua to the School Committee in April.

Under Dr. Khelfaoui’s watch, the school district contributed about $2 million to the total $3.4 million town deficit. Much of the deficits for the town and school district were created by a combination of accounting errors in the health insurance trust fund for all town and school employees, as well as a high number of catastrophic illnesses. However, the school district overspent trust fund accounts and depleted reserves.

Dr. Khelfaoui also took heat last year when it was learned he was investigated for suspected tax fraud. Town officials asked the state to investigate irregularities in Dr. Khelfaoui’s tax withholdings in his paycheck. An initial investigation by the town indicated that those withholdings were being made manually in the payroll system.

According to letters received by the town following a review, the Worcester District Attorney’s Office and the Criminal Investigations Bureau for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue declined to take on the matter, stating that the amount of money alleged to be part of the tax evasion was not high enough.

“The facts presented do not support a prosecutable case of tax evasion under the applicable statutes,” wrote Assistant District Attorney John O’Leary.

Dr. Khelfaoui denied blame for the tax evasion, saying that then-school district business manager Melissa Dunnet made errors that withheld money from his taxable income. However, according to a police report, Ms. Dunnet said she was directed by Dr. Khelfaoui to make those changes to his withholding.

Ms. Dunnet resigned her post in June 2014, and in August she received more than $25,000 from the school district. Dr. Khelfaoui and School Committee members have said this payment was part of a contractual obligation, however, such a payment is not indicated in Ms. Dunnet’s employment contract.

The Lowell position is set to start on July 1, giving the Winchendon School Committee time to start a search for Dr. Khelfaoui’s replacement.


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