Staff Changes Hurt Efforts to Fill Lowell Schools Transportation Job
LOWELL -- Since school transportation coordinator John Descoteaux accepted a job at NRT Bus Inc. in June of last year, the district has struggled to find -- and keep -- a permanent replacement.
The most recent approach has the district combining this role with another vacant administrative position: assistant business manager.
However, the struggle to fill the position continues as the search for the “assistant business manager for transportation” enters its third month. A first attempt ended “a few weeks ago” with the district’s top pick opting for another job, Superintendent Salah Khelfaoui said at the end of June.
Earlier this year, he explained to the School Committee the person assuming the new combined position will mainly handle transportation in the district, but also be available to help the business office during peak season and work with the Massachusetts Teachers Retirement System. This is not the first time the two positions have been combined, he told the committee.
In a 6-0 vote in early May, the School Committee approved the revised position description, but as the search drags on, some say the parameters could change.
Khelfaoui said it is possible the search could pivot and once again separate the roles into two positions.
“It’s not decided,” he said in late June. “It’s something that’s been talked about in light of the fact that we will now have all new people.”
These new people might include a replacement for departing chief financial officer Gary Frisch, who also headed up the search committee for this combined position. Frisch’s last day with the district was Sunday, after announcing he accepted a job with Gloucester Public Schools two weeks earlier.
Efforts to appoint an interim for the district’s top financial position before Frisch’s departure were unsuccessful. Three candidates turned down the position, though Khelfaoui is now hopeful a temporary appointment can be made before the end of the month.
The new vacancy has some School Committee members anxious about the still empty transportation and assistant business manager roles.
“Our CFO is missing, but our back-up committee is gone,” School Committee Chair William Samaras said the week Frisch announced his departure.
“We’re major league,” he later added. “Yes, we need a CFO, but we need a really strong back-up person.”
More recently, some have speculated Khelfaoui may also be departing from the district, though in June he denied the rumors contain any truth “as of now.” Efforts to reach Khelfaoui Sunday for updated comment were unsuccessful.
Samaras has advocated for splitting the assistant business manager and transportation position, saying he would “rather spend some money to save some money.”
However, fellow School Committee member Gerry Nutter said hiring two people for the roles doesn’t seem possible given the district’s finances.
“We’re laying people off. We’re closing libraries,” he said. “We can’t afford to be adding positions.”
According to notes included in the most recent budget, combining the positions has a financial motivation: about $60,000 in savings annually.
The new position’s salary is budgeted for $99,500 this year. This is slightly more than the $95,476 the assistant business manager would have been paid last fiscal year. However, since the position was vacant most of the year, the district ended up paying less than half of the budgeted amount in what Frisch described as an intentional cost cutting measure.
After the most recent assistant business manager, Mike Cassidy, left the district last October, the position was left unfilled in order to save money and assess the operations of the business office, according to statements Frisch made to the School Committee in April.
The history of the transportation coordinator’s salary is more complicated, since last year’s budget combined it with another position, the coordinator of school department’s family resource center.
The last long-term transportation director, John Descoteaux, was expected to receive $96,638 for the 2017-2018 school year for coordinating both the center and transportation.
However, Descoteaux, nephew of School Committee member Andre Descoteaux, resigned in June 2017 to take a position at NRT Bus Inc., which entered into a contract with the district the month before.
The most recent budget lists the coordinator of the family resource center as a separate position with an expected $108,834 salary. In the same budget, last year’s transportation manager salary, alone, is listed as $67,633.
For a brief period, Dodie Dolan also served as the transportation coordinator, though she left the position sometime in March or mid-April, according to Frisch and meeting minutes.
Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.