Residents of the Liverpool Central School District packed into Room 410 at the high school last Tuesday night, each eager for an opportunity to respond to a report released by the state comptroller last month.
It was the board’s first meeting since the comptroller’s office released the results of an audit of the district revealing serious mismanagement of public finances.
Superintendent Jan Matousek opened the meeting by reading a prepared statement putting the blame for the issues criticized by the comptroller on the previous administration of John Cataldo, as well as suspended administrators George Mangicaro and Bonnie Ladd.
“It’s unfair to blame this administration,” Matousek said. “This board and administration have been diligent. We haven’t hesitated to act, nor have we attempted to cover anything up.”
But the residents in the audience weren’t buying it.
“This happened on your watch,” said Bill Smorol. “We can’t forget that.”
Neil Fitzpatrick questioned the board’s ability to look at the issues objectively.
“I’ve read the report, as well as the district’s response,” Fitzpatrick said. “The differences are stark. The report itself is very professional and businesslike, but your response — it jumped out at me how personal it was. I’m wondering if there’s too much bad blood for this to be resolved.”
Mike Azzolino agreed.
“All of my kids went to Liverpool,” Azzolino said. “Every time I’ve been asked to vote ‘yes’ for something, I have. I’ve voted for every budget, every referendum. But I question this.”
In particular, Azzolino asked why the board hadn’t pursued legal action against the subcontractors who installed the faulty drainage system under the turf at the high school stadium. He pointed out that Ballard Construction, that subcontractor, was still in business, though the company that installed the turf itself is now defunct.
“I’m in construction, so I know how this works,” he said. “Why wasn’t the project bonded? Why aren’t we going after them?”
Dennis O’Hara, attorney for the district, revealed that not only could the contracts for the original stadium not be located, but that the district had never executed them.
“It was all handled by the architect,” O’Hara said. “We don’t know what happened to them.”
O’Hara admitted that his firm never saw the contracts.
The revelation caused an uproar in the small room as many residents called for action, including the appointment of a new law firm.
Melanie Lucie asked a question that was brought up in the comptroller’s report.
“Why isn’t the legal representation put out to bid?” she asked.
“We’re not required by law to do that,” Matousek replied.
But that wasn’t good enough for the audience.
“After 35 years of the same legal representation, it’s time for some new blood,” another resident said.
Much of the rest of the meeting continued in this vein, with residents calling into question several decisions made by district leadership and demanding answers.
Board officer responds
After the meeting, Board of Education Vice President David Savlov responded to some of the concerns raised by those in attendance in an exclusive interview with The Review.
Savlov first addressed questions raised by the public concerning the missing computer equipment noted in the audit.
“People wanted to know why no charges were filed,” he said. “We don’t know. We went to the state police, who investigated and took what they had to the DA. At that time, they chose not to pursue it. I don’t know why the case wasn’t pursued.”
Savlov said he believed the district attorney’s office might reconsider their decision in light of the comptroller’s report.
“I suspect that they may take a different stance now,” he said. “I have a feeling they might take another look at it.”
Savlov also addressed the missing contracts.
“Those architects [Dodge Chamberlin Luzine Weber Associates] were hired because they were buddies of John Cataldo’s,” Savlov said. “We had a lot of problems with them and we’ve taken them to litigation. Their work was shoddy and negligent.”
Savlov said one of the first things he did upon being elected to the board was to demand that a new architect be appointed to work with the district. The district now uses Ashley McGraw, based in Syracuse.
Savlov said the move is something he is also considering with regard to the district’s legal representation.
“I am wondering if we need new legal representation,” he said. “We owe it to the community to at least look into it. It’s a lot of money, and we need to spend it in the most efficient way.”
Savlov said he will be suggesting looking into retaining a new attorney at a future board meeting.
Despite these concessions, Savlov still stood by his fellow board members and the administration.
“We do the best we can,” Savlov said. “I know everybody’s upset, but you can’t blame us for this. We’re the ones who took action to get the process started.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club’s Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.