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School superintendent, city councilors debate over cell phone bill

Date: 2/1/2011

Feb. 2, 2011

By Katelyn Gendron

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — A debate over the school department's annual $20,000 cell phone bill and transparency between the department and the city council escalated via interoffice memorandums last week.

City Councilor Joseph Mineo originally requested that City Auditor Cheryl St. John look into the expenditure and specific employee usage on Jan. 4. The request was met with criticism from School Superintendent Dr. Mary Czajkowski in a memo dated Jan. 10 in which she stated that "any and all requests from City Councilors to the school department be submitted in writing ... to ensure the timeliness of any response but also its accuracy." City Council President Donald Rheault and Mineo fired back with their own memos on Jan. 25 and Jan. 27, respectively.

"I appreciate your efforts of keeping the lines of communication open and I believe you have the authority to issue School Department policy," Rheault wrote the superintendent with added emphasis. "My disagreement with your request is that the City Council, as confirmed in the Agawam Town Charter, retains the right to question, correspond and even investigate with anyone it believes will assist in their performance.

"Councilor Mineo asked a question of the Council's employee (the City Auditor), the substance of which happened to be related to and pertaining to school information. If our Auditor couldn't provide the answer, it then might have been appropriate for the School Department to offer assistance or for us to seek it ourselves. The City Auditor holds a very responsible position and answers to the City Council. Our request was directed to her and it appears it was appropriately handled and to date she has done an exceptional job," Rheault continued with added emphasis.

Mineo maintained that his request for information was to St. John and not Czajkowski. "I think we can all agree that it would neither be necessary, nor appropriate, for any City Councilor to have to request in writing to the Superintendent for information from our own Auditor," Mineo wrote in a memo to Rheault on Jan. 27.

"Much like our educators have to occasionally give a pop quiz in the best interest of students, so, too must the City Council occasionally ask what may pose as an uncomfortable question," Mineo wrote.

Czajkowski told Reminder Publications she'd "be happy to share the information" with the City Council but maintained that requests for information pertaining to school department matters should go through her to "ensure accuracy."

The superintendent said the line item for the department's cell phones usually comes in under budget thanks to a 47 percent E-Rate reimbursement courtesy of the Federal Commission on Telecommunications.

Patricia Cavanaugh, director of finance and human resources for the school department, concurred with Czajkowski. The department budgeted approximately $30,000 for its 34 cell phones, she noted, paid approximately $20,000 in bills but was reimbursed $9,173.

Rheault said the bill might still be too high, even with Czajkowski paying for her own cell phone.

"I think we can get come tightening up on the usage. It seems like that spending is way out of control ... but they may have justification for the expenditure," he added. "Until we get down to the specifics, I just don't know."

Czajkowski said the usage is justified. "With all of our administrators their cell phones are not only for the purposes of communication but they have student schedules and parent contact information," she explained. "We've been doing this since cell phones came into use."

Rheault said the line item would most likely come under scrutiny during this spring's budget season.

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