CONWAY — Becky Jefferson served as SAU 9's director of budget and finance for 48 years before retiring in June.
Her successor lasted less than two months.
Richard Marston, 55, of Naples, Maine, started July 1 but quickly discovered it was not the job for him. He submitted his letter of resignation Aug. 30, forcing the SAU to readvertise the position and leaving the office shorthanded.
“He realized very soon after he started that this is a large job,” Superintendent Kevin Richard explained at last Thursday’s SAU 9 board meeting, which brings together members of the Albany, Bartlett, Chatham, Conway, Eaton, Hart’s Location and Jackson school boards. “It also requires due-diligence in understanding the roles and responsibilities of working within a school district as a finance director, so for a myriad of reasons this didn’t work out.”
Fortunately, Jefferson, 66, of Bartlett was willing to come in and help out the office. She had been offered a stipend to assist with the transition.
Marston was the former finance director of the Portland Jetport and worked for the City of Portland, Maine, from 1996-2018.
Prior to coming to SAU 9, he was senior accountant for the city of Lewiston, Maine, from March to June 2019.
On hand for the Sept. 12 board meeting were Joe Ferris and Tim Sorgi of Albany; Nancy Kelemen (chair), Ivette Emery and Andrew Light of Bartlett; Michelle Capozzoli (vice-chair), Davison, Joe Lentini and Sullivan; Monique Hebert of Eaton; and Jessica DellaValla and Jerry Dougherty from Jackson.
Randy Davison, of the Conway board, asked what led Marston to leave.
“You have a letter of resignation from the person; it didn’t work out,” Richard replied.
Efforts to get the board to share the contents of the letter with the Sun were unsuccessful.
“Is there any feedback that would help us for the next person?” Cheri Sullivan, also of Conway, asked.
“I think when we get to the reorganization of the finance department (the next item on the agenda), I can explain it,” Richard said.
The SAU board voted 12-0 to accept Marston's resignation.
The finance department, which oversees $50 million in budgets, is made up of the finance director; Jim Hill, director of administrative services; Cheryl Cook, payroll manager; and financial assistants Jeannette Croteau and Brigitte Ouellette.
“Right now, I will say, the financial department is pretty fragile,” Richard said. “We’re down a big piece. Becky Jefferson has been committing her time. It was originally for training, but a lot of it is because we are so far behind. But she’s bringing us back up out of the goodness of her heart and her commitment to the organization.
"Thank goodness she didn’t go to Colorado (to visit family) for the past two months,” Richard said.
He explained that Jefferson has been working on end-of-the-year expenditure reports and the state Department of Education MS25 reports.
“There are a number of collective bargaining agreements with each district, there are a number of different personnel agreements within each district and with each one of those there are different pay, different benefits, different sick time," Richard said.
"Everything is different, so all of that information has to be put into the system and has to be accounted for,” he said. “You’re talking about $50 million that runs through that office and over 400 employees. ... And, that doesn’t include some of the retiree benefits that have to be weeded out as well.”
Richard added: “Our goal is to expedite the process of hiring a finance director.”
Richard confirmed Tuesday that SAU 9 has received roughly a half-dozen applications for the position. He hopes to begin the interview process next week.
“We do have some good applicants,” he said. “We went through the process before, and the applicants weren’t terrific, but (Marston) was the best of the lot.
“What we also recognized was that institutionally things were so dependent upon one individual,” he added.
The SAU 9 Executive Board, made up by the chair and vice-chair of the seven towns, met with Richard prior to last Thursday and came up with three recommendations to help in reorganizing the department. The first was to appropriate $3,000 to bring in a consulting firm to study the finance department’s setup.
“I think it’s a good first step,” Richard said, “because it does need some rearranging whether it’s shifting of responsibilities or job duties related to it.”
Richard also wanted to bring in someone to work 10 hours a week at $15 per hour to help with administrative duties such as handling the 150 checks per month for retiree health insurance.
He said Jefferson was initially approved for up to 200 hours but would like to expand it.
“She would work for free, but I don’t think she should have to do that,” Richard said. “We’d probably get into big trouble with the Department of Labor if she was donating her time. I’d like to be able to offer more hours for her to come in and help with the training of the new person.”
Richard and the executive board also wanted to increase the new director's maximum salary from $91,000 to $96,000 in hopes of attracting more experienced applicants.
Dougherty moved to send a letter commending the financial staff for their work.
“It’s not really surprising to me that we’re back where we are, given the magnitude of the job Becky did,” he said. “The job that the financial department does is a gargantuan effort. I think we’ve always been understaffed there, and I’d like to recognize their efforts.”
The motion passed 12-0.
Each of Richard’s recommendations was then brought forward in motions by Kelemen. The consulting firm and increasing Jefferson’s hours were unanimously approved.
But Davison had “a real problem” with the salary increase for the director.
“I have been sitting on this board and have consistently voted no to increasing this position,” he said. “This means that we would be financing a position that has been raised in three years $20,000 — that’s unheard of in any position. I’m baffled. I sat here, and three years ago, this position was $76,000, and now you’re moving it up to $96,000.
He said when Marston was hired, "I doubted that he had a lot of school finance in his background, so whoever did the hiring, I really have a problem with that.
"Hopefully, the problem will be resolved with hiring some who has school finance experience because this SAU is huge, it’s insurmountable the paperwork that you have to do,” Davison said.
Lentini moved the question (of salary), and the motion was approved 10-2 with Davison and Sorgi in the minority.