I was off last week and Chrissy and I took a short trip Down Da Jersey Shore. We love the Wildwoods and the Doo-Wop-era motels that hearken back to a time when everything from cars to clothes to crazes was cooler and just about everyone was sure America‘s best days lay ahead
Today I’m back at my desk in the cubicle farm and back to reality in Our Stiff Neck of the Woods. By noon, the only remaining element of my vacation was the sunburn blistering under my necktie as I caught up on the news I missed. Staff Writer Borys Krawczeniuk‘s front-page story on the no-bid, no-see Scranton School District busing contract with DeNaples Transportation got me reminiscing on a column I wrote last summer.
So I went to The Times-Tribune‘s spiffy new digital archives powered by Newspapers.com. Subscribers get full access to every issue published for the newspaper they subscribe to. Scranton’s archives include The Scranton Times, The Times-Tribune, The Tribune,Scranton Republican and the Scrantonian all the way back to 1866.
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In the meantime, look back at this column, published June 20, 2018
Paige Gebhardt Cognetti bowed her head and gasped. The finance committee chairwoman of the Scranton School District couldn’t believe what we just heard.
“No discussion?” she said. “On something this costly? Really?”
Really. The cassette recording of the board’s Aug. 28, 2006, meeting showed that directors unanimously passed a no-bid bus contract extension with no discussion of a 4 percent fuel surcharge fee payable to DeNaples Transportation Inc.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says the surcharge cost Scranton taxpayers at least $4 million, a number De-Naples disputes.
I went to the district Administration Building on Monday to listen to the tape, which ended up matching the minutes I’ve previously reported. Also there were Cognetti, Director Mark McAndrew, district Right-to-Know officer Robert Gentilezza, board Secretary Virginia Orr, transportation Director Kathleen Bevilacqua and Jeff Brazil, the district’s chief operations officer.
Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., did not attend.
Turned out there were two tapes — one of the regular meeting and another of the previous week’s work session. In the latter, then director and transportation Chairman Tom Gilbride says he “may have” new business at the next regular meeting “regarding an extension of time on the busing contract, but I don’t know whether or not that’s going to happen.”
Seven days later, it did. Gilbride read the resolution, which was revised at least once in DeNaples’ favor. Director Bob Lesh seconded. There was no discussion of costs and benefits, let alone the fuel surcharge. The board voted 7-0, with two directors absent.
I previously reported that five directors who were there that night — including then-President Brian Jeffers — said they either don’t remember voting for the surcharge or never knew about it.
The tapes proved nothing new, but the district produced an informational packet Bevilacqua said was distributed to directors ahead of the meeting. She was board secretary in 2006. The representative packet included the addendum and surcharge information. Directors should have been aware before voting, she said.
Former Director Kathleen McGuigan — who voted for the 2006 extension but insists she never knew about the fuel surcharge — wasn’t convinced by the packet.
“That only proves it was in the packet they preserved,” she said Tuesday. “Maybe they put it in some packets and not others. It used to happen. It doesn’t guarantee anything.”
That is unfortunately true. No one witnessed the opening of the 2006 packet on Monday, so doubt is inevitable. This is what happens when public officials shirk their responsibilities at the expense of transparency and the people they are elected, paid and sworn to serve.
This has long been a pattern in Lackawanna County politics, most tragically in the Scranton School District. The fuel surcharge addendum fiasco is just one more example of the institutional incompetence and chronic cronyism that brought the district to the brink of ruin.
“That the 2006 board did not publicly discuss the DeNaples Transportation contract extension should not have been a surprise to me,” Cognetti said Tuesday. “Just two years ago, a majority of the 2016 board voted through yet another extension of the longest-running, most expensive, most frequently questioned no-bid contract in a public school district under severe financial strain.
“It is now the responsibility of the current board and administration to break this pattern of negligence that has plagued the Scranton School District for so long.”
Cognetti is also on the board’s transportation committee. Bob Lesh is its chairman. Go ahead. Gasp.
CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, misses mix-tapes. Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org, @cjkink on Twitter. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly.