Portsmouth school chairman accused of abusing power

Portsmouth school chairman accused of abusing power

“No School Committee member can act on their own no matter what, per state law and our bylaws,” committee member Frederick W. Faerber III said in his prepared statement, referring to Chairman David Croston.

PORTSMOUTH — School Committee member Frederick W. Faerber III continued his public battle against Chairman David Croston at Tuesday night’s meeting, delivering a strongly worded statement accusing the chairman of consistently abusing his powers and meddling in administrators’ business.

Mr. Faerber’s war of the words started last week when he e-mailed a statement to several news outlets that charged the chairman with approving the pouring of a concrete slab, located near the high school’s new turf football field that’s part of the “T3” athletic upgrades, that will serve as the base for a pavilion.

“This is to be a very generous donation on the part of both Chris Bicho and Hurd Construction to be named Prescott Point Pavilion,” stated Mr. Faerber.

This concrete slab for a pavilion that will be be built near Portsmouth High School’s main athletic field was poured without the required approval of the School Committee, one member alleges.
This concrete slab for a pavilion that will be be built near Portsmouth High School’s main athletic field was poured without the required approval of the School Committee, one member alleges.
But there was a problem, he said: The full School Committee never saw the plans for the building nor approved its construction. That decision was made by Mr. Croston alone in violation of the committee’s bylaws, Mr. Faerber alleged.

“Not only was this an egregious and illegal exercise of non-existent authority by Mr. Croston, it was not properly permitted and inspected by the town building inspector as required,” stated Mr. Faerber. “As I have repeatedly said, (committee) members have no authority outside a (committee) session. On many issues and occasions Mr. Croston has ignored that restriction and created the illusion that he has some power and authority that (committee) members do not have.”

The committee Tuesday night ultimately voted 6-0 (member Emily Copeland was absent) to formally accept the donation of the pavilion, although the motion included an amendment from Mr. Faerber that the building inspector review all plans to ensure the building is safe.

“What will happen if a gust of wind gets under it?” he asked. “We just don’t know.”

Committee member John Wojichowski echoed some of Mr. Faerber’s comments regarding the way the matter was handled. “I would have liked to see this come before this committee before tonight. I think there was opportunity to do that. Our policies are sacred to me,” he said.

Other than to say the slab was poured “by a licensed contractor … with approved plans,” Mr. Croston did not respond to Mr. Faerber’s accusations during the meeting.

In interviews before and after the session, however, he acknowledged approving the slab — poured on June 23 or 24, he said — in order to save the donor money. Waiting any longer could have made the job much more expensive, he said, and time was of the essence.

“(Mr. Faerber) is absolutely correct that the slab itself — that gift; no public funds were used — should have gone to the School Committee for approval,” said Mr. Croston. “But the accusation that it did not have a permit and was illegal is patently false. My perspective is that it’s already an existing, permitted project, or it was the contractor doing the project. As far as Hurd Construction coming in, somebody’s going to have to pull the permit to actually build that structure.

“Decisions are made every single day. Unfortunately, timing is such they don’t align to a point where we can bring seven members together.”

Mr. Faerber’s not buying it, however. “The chair had no authority to approve the slab,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Since the chair first mentioned the pavilion in April as a ‘possible’ donation, he had plenty of time to advise the (committee) earlier that his so-called dilemma was going to happen if we didn’t approve the pavilion in a timely fashion.”

Video system questioned

The concrete slab wasn’t the only problem Mr. Faerber had with the chairman. He also accused Mr. Croston of a significant conflict of interest shortly after the School Committee, in the spring of 2013, voted 6-0 to purchase and install a video surveillance system at the high school.

Mr. Croston presented a proposal to have the work done by Rhodeway Networks, Inc., but recused himself from the company’s presentation and the committee vote because he “was also an investor or partner in the company,” said Mr. Faerber. (Mr. Croston said he merely knew employees at Rhodeway and had been in discussions with them.)

But after the contract was approved, said Mr. Faerber, the committee got a surprise.

“Mr. Croston entered the high school on a Saturday morning and proceeded to install the system himself,” he said. “He did not have a permit and the company he represented, Rhodeway Networks, Inc., was not and is not licensed to do business in Rhode Island. The system never worked from day one and repeated calls for support to Rhodeway were ignored.”

Out of fear of retribution, the school facilities staff was reluctant to remove the system which put the safety and security of the high school at risk for at least a year, claimed Mr. Faerber, adding a new system is to be installed in all school buildings shortly.

According to Mr. Croston, while he helped employees of Rhodeway find their way around the high school and assisted with some wiring, he was personally responsible for installing only one of eight cameras at PHS, which he said was supported by the school administration including the high school principal.

“That was installed under an emergency situation in the second floor to cover a bathroom,” he said. “We had had two bomb scares. We had no security present on the bathroom in question where the letters were in fact found. I volunteered my time and provided equipment so that if we find a third letter, we could at least go back to the video. In no way, shape or form did I do that all alone.”

He also refuted Mr. Faerber’s claim that Rhodeway turned a deaf ear to school officials’ concerns. “The idea that phone calls were not returned is just nonsense,” said Mr. Croston, who blamed the faulty system on a Cisco appliance that would not allow the data stream to leave the building. “The point is, Portsmouth benefitted from it and will benefit from it because we have eight cameras wired in that high school,” he said, noting that Rhodeway donated its time in wiring the cameras which represented “a gift of roughly $15,000 to the school.”

Town Hall TVs

In his statement last week, Mr. Faerber also claimed that the chairman installed the television sets in the Town Council chambers at Town Hall, where Tuesday’s meeting was held.

Mr. Croston, however, said Coastal Electric was responsible for installing the electricity. “I put the TV stands in, school personnel and I put the TVs up. I donated $500, $600 worth of gear. Fault me for being proactive,” said Mr. Croston.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Faerber said Coastal Electric was brought in to “wire the electrical portion of the TVs but only after it had been determined that the chairman had illegally connected them with extension cords, an extreme fire code violation.”

The chairman again refuted the allegation.

“We did not do anything that was not for the benefit of the town or didn’t meet any kind of code,” said Mr. Croston. “The very fact that I have to try to justify my donation of hours (or money) really puts a very dark cloud over anyone who donates services to this town.”

Technology expenditure

In other business Tuesday night, the committee voted unanimously to use $230,316 in surplus funds to purchase previously approved technology upgrades under capital items.

Resident Larry Fitzmorris objected to the expenditure, saying it wasn’t included in the town’s approved budget. He suggested that the vote be postponed.

Finance Director Chris DiIurio, however, said surplus funds may be spent “at the pleasure of the School Committee.”

Replied Mr. Fitzmorris, “I fundamentally object to that.” He said both the town charter and state law required all of the committee’s expenditures and revenues be included in the town budget so taxpayers have the opportunity to review them.

“It’s what the law requires,” he said.

Resignation accepted

Also Tuesday night, the committee formally accepted with regret the resignation of Jeffrey Schoonover from the position of assistant superintendent.

Mr. Schoonover left the district last month after being selected to become joint superintendent by the Somerset and Somerset Berkley Regional school committees.

“We note the exemplary service he gave to the School Department,” said Mr. Croston, noting that Mr. Schoonover had also been head of the science department at the high school and, as director of instruction and assessment, was responsible for many positive curriculum changes in the district.