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Operation of emergency phone system may change over allegations of multiple misuses

Date: 7/27/2010

July 28, 2010

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM -- The debate persists over allegations that School Superintendent Mary Czajkowski and School Committee Finance Chair Diane Juzba improperly used the citywide Connect-ED telephone system to unite the community against possible budget cuts. A new ordinance setting rules for its implementation may be in the works to quell future incidents of public outcry based on misinformation, according to City Councilors Donald Rheault and Robert Rossi.

Rheault and Rossi maintain that Czajkowski and Juzba misused Connect-ED on June 18 and 20 to prompt protest against a possible $1.1 million cut -- never formally approved by councilors -- despite contrary findings from an independent third party, Bacon & Wilson law firm. The councilors said the superintendent provided false information about cuts in her messages causing more than 250 angry residents to flood the June 21 City Council meeting demanding a fully-funded $33.9 million fiscal year 2011 (FY11) school budget, which ultimately passed.

Mayor Richard Cohen said he retained Bacon & Wilson to conduct an independent investigation into the allegations per Rheault and Rossi's verbal request during a meeting on July 6, an appeal both councilors deny.

Cohen noted that Bacon & Wilson's "legal opinion concludes that 'no legal authority suggests that the Superintendent's actions are either prohibited or illegal per se.'"

Rheault disagreed, adding that this case "opens up Pandora's box."

"If this is the case that someone could use [Connect-ED] for whatever reason then why shouldn't I have the right to use it for the town council?" Rheault asked. "Guidelines must be set for the use of that system."

Rossi said, "I never authorized Richard Cohen to make an investigation, inquiry or authorized him to contact Bacon & Wilson on my behalf. I told him that I wanted to get a legal ruling for the proper use of that [phone] system. It is quite obvious to me that the superintendent of schools made those calls not for the children but to save her own bacon."

Czajkowski denied the accusation. "My intention was to preserve funding for our schools and that was the ultimate outcome," she said. Her motivation was not solely to save central office staff but all jobs, she added.

"I'm pleased [Cohen] did an independent investigation and hope that we can put this behind us and continue to move forward," Czajkowski said.

Rossi noted he submitted questions regarding the use of Connect-ED to City Solicitor Vincent Gioscia that have yet to be answered. The solicitor said he had no comment on the matter at this time.

Further discussion over the proper usage of Connect-ED is ongoing, Rheault and Rossi said, adding that a possible ordinance maintaining formal rules may be the future course of action.