Questions Over Schools' Action

Superintendent Cash's Failure to Support Principal on Koines Subject at Regional Meeting; Audit Critical of Lapses

By CHRIS BURRELL

Regional high school committee meetings don't typically turn feisty, but with fallout from the Peter J. Koines case still hanging in the air, Tisbury officials showed up to this week's meeting to blast committee members and the schools superintendent for mishandling the affair.

It's only the second school committee meeting since Mr. Koines, the culinary arts teacher, admitted last month in an Edgartown court that he stole $20,000 worth of student activity funds and some $7,000 worth of school-owned equipment.

While school committee members have tried to put the matter behind them and shift the focus to more positive news in the high school, the aftermath of Mr. Koines' actions is still churning up controversy.

Wednesday night, school committee members took their first look at a stinging report from their auditor who cited serious lapses in the high school's internal fiscal controls that may have paved the way for Mr. Koines to take a 3,000-pound refrigerator out of the high-school building and order pie fixings for his own business on the high school's tab.

By the end of the meeting, it was George Balco's turn to raise the issue. The head of a finance committee known for keeping a close watch on schools spending, Mr. Balco of Tisbury started off by saying, "I've been asked by scores of people to deliver a message, most of it being a great deal of disappointment,"

He then sharply criticized the school board for not backing high school principal Peg Regan, who had tried to fire Mr. Koines and demote vocational director Kevin Carr back in June when she learned about missing funds and equipment from the culinary arts program.

Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash reversed both those actions.

In Mr. Balco's view, that was a mistake. Addressing Mrs. Regan, he said: "Not to embarrass you, but many people out there think you do a good job and that your letters were not premature."

"The school committee has not come out with support for Peg Regan," he said. "As the public perceives it, it's a bit like you're in the cross-hairs."

School committee members quickly defended themselves against the charges.

"I don't understand the implication that the school committee doesn't support the principal," said Oak Bluffs member Tim Dobel, who was elected new chairman of the school committee Wednesday. "The school committee does not handle personnel issues."

"She does not need to be supported," said Leslie Baynes, board member from Edgartown. "She's exciting and vigorous and cares about kids."

"We do not need to defend her," said Gail Palacios, the outgoing school committee chairperson from Edgartown.

But over the summer, as Oak Bluffs police intensified their investigation into Mr. Koines, it was clear that Ms. Palacios was at odds with the principal. In mid-August, she told the Gazette: "The principal only recommended that [Mr. Koines] be dismissed. I think that was an error in judgment. She acted prematurely. This guy hadn't had his hearings."

This week, committee members were eager to leave the Koines affair behind them. "It's done, it's over. We have the auditor's report and we're going to look at the systems," said Mr. Baynes.

"Let's stop focusing on this small area of negativity," said Mr. Dobel, urging instead that the committee highlight the positive aspects of high school.

His capped off his comments by praising the leadership of Mr. Cash and Mrs. Regan, drawing applause from people in the room.

But much of the discussion remained contentious. Mr. Cash came under direct fire from another Tisbury finance committee member, Meverell Good.

"Dr. Cash, are taxpayers who are very angry going to get some full accounting?" he asked before being cut off by Mr. Dobel, who demanded that comments be addressed to the chairman.

Mr. Good persisted. "Why were the principal's recommendations not followed?" he asked Mr. Cash.

"No comment," said the superintendent.

"In other words, just gloss it over," shot back Mr. Good.

"No, those are your words," answered Mr. Cash.

Mr. Dobel then stepped in, not only defending the high school's response but also implying that Mr. Koines' punishment - ordered to pay back $10,000 within 30 days and the remainder of the money within 18 months and perform hundreds of hours of community service - may have been excessive.

"An accounting has taken place," he said. "Any loss suffered by the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School has been fully reimbursed, maybe over and above. The process worked well."

Mr. Dobel then threw his support behind Mr. Carr, the vocational director who has come under criticism for not watching over the money trail or inventory, a responsibility spelled out in his job description.

During the high school addition project, Mr. Dobel said - looking over to Mr. Carr, who sat in a chair behind the committee - "millions and millions of dollars were overseen by this gentleman, and it was a tremendous achievement."

Mr. Dobel called his committee "good stewards" of taxpayer money.

But a preliminary report from the high school auditor, Chris Rogers of Burlington, stated that the school district had done a poor job keeping track of its capital inventory and needed to correct "significant deficiencies" in fiscal controls over the culinary arts department.

The audit said: "We believe these deficiencies represent a reportable condition, considered to be a material weakness in the department's system of internal control."