By JOHN HOWELL School finance and operations director Robert Baxter, whose bold plans to showcase schools, streamline busing, increase community use of school buildings and build enrollment were featured in a July 1 Warwick Beacon front page story, has
School finance and operations director Robert Baxter, whose bold plans to showcase schools, streamline busing, increase community use of school buildings and build enrollment were featured in a July 1 Warwick Beacon front page story, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation, the Beacon learned Sunday from a reliable source.
In a brief meeting Tuesday, the School Committee unanimously voted to retain the law firm of Barton Gilman to conduct the investigation and to post Baxter’s job for the appointment of a temporary administrator.
In a July 12 letter to Baxter signed by Superintendent Lynn Dambruch and Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey, the top administrators say the refurbishment of Veterans Middle School has “expanded far beyond the initial focus of paint and floor tiles as stated publicly at School Committee meetings.” It goes on to cite concerns over the bid process and “that work has been performed without our approval and prior to School Committee approval.” The letter further alleges Baxter failed to follow numerous policies and procedures, including fiscal management goals, purchasing procedures and budget adoption.
In a three-page response dated July 19, attorney Richard Sinapi gives detailed responses to the allegations, listing work being done at Vets, meetings with Dambruch and McCaffrey and members of the School Committee and communications. In response to the allegation that work had been done without prior approval, Sinapi writes all work was approved by the School Committee and that while some furniture had been moved out of rooms in the G-wing in anticipation of demolition, “there was no contract for such work and such work was not approved or authorized by my client.”
Sinapi writes that Baxter initiated numerous communications, including daily calls to inform Dambruch of progress of the demolition, and that there were many opportunities for her to express any concerns. Sinapi references a “vision board” in Baxter’s office that outlined what he was working on and the Beacon article on his efforts.
Sinapi that writes to Baxter’s knowledge, “he has at all times followed procedures and policies.” Sinapi says claims Baxter started projects without committee approval are inaccurate.
A segment of the letter is devoted to G-wing violations of minimum health and safety standards – which include falling fiberglass particles, poor air quality, deficient and unsafe electrical service, non-compliance with ADA requirements – and that these deficiencies were the primary cost to the G-wing demolition and refit projects that Baxter proposed to recommend. Further, Sinapi writes that Baxter secured a commitment from the Rhode Island Department of Education to proceed with the work, which would be reimbursed between 35 and 42 percent.
“Ultimately,” Sinapi writes, ”the allocation of resources is a political/policy decision for the School Committee to make.”
He writes while Baxter’s role is to use his skills and background to make a recommendation, “it appears in this instance that in order to deflect attention from the ‘inconvenient truth’ of the existence of material health and safety deficiencies that need remediation at a larger scope and cost more than anticipated, my client has become the target of trivial and/or baseless allegations that have nothing to do with the priority, merits or necessity of the proposed renovations.”
Dambruch did not return a call, and in an email, School Committee vice chair Nathan Cornell said he could not comment.