The Winthrop Town Council took a strong, if symbolic, stand recently when it voted 5-1 in support of a statement that expressed “no confidence” in school Superintendent Gary Rosenthal, accusing him of repeated budget errors and “attempts to cover up the truth.”

The 5-1 vote, taken during a meeting last week, was the latest salvo in a simmering disagreement between the town and the School Department about a funding error that was made more than a year ago and that has left the department with a more than $700,000 shortfall.

While both sides have stated they need to work together to prevent similar errors from happening and have taken steps in that direction, they also have continued to disagree about which side was responsible for the mistake.

The vote of no confidence was a symbolic measure, as it’s the Board of Education — not the council — that has the authority to hire and fire superintendents. Councilors say they held the vote to demonstrate their loss of trust in Rosenthal.

“It’s a decision we deliberated about for quite some time, based on everything that’s happened since errors in the school budget were discovered and repeated comments, statements and actions (by Rosenthal) to place blame elsewhere,” said Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the council. “There was no accountability for those mistakes. … It’s just an expression of our opinion, letting the public know that we think there’s a problem there.”

According to minutes of the Feb. 6 meeting, the councilors approved a short statement accusing Rosenthal of making “repeated, significant errors in the school budget process spanning several years, and … consistently (engaging) in attempts to cover up the truth and avoid accountability for those errors.”

That statement was approved by Fuller and Councilors Richard Henry, Barbara Buck, Linda Caprara and Linda MacDonald. Councilor Priscilla Jenkins opposed the statement.

However, the Board of Education has backed Rosenthal since the shortfall was discovered last summer. In December, its members held an annual evaluation of Rosenthal and voted to extend his contract until 2020, according to Chairwoman Virginia Geyer. According to the School Department budget, Rosenthal is receiving a $99,584 salary this year, up $4,000 from last year.

“I think the vote of no confidence is just an unfortunate distraction,” Geyer said. “Before that, we had three fairly good town-school meetings that I think were moving corrections (to the school financing process) forward, and I hope that this is not another setback.”

She continued, “I would love much more to emphasize the great things Gary has done. He’s always underspent his budgets. The schools have consistently brought in test scores that are pretty much above average for the state but below the state average for the price. We do have a good reputation.”

Rosenthal said he disagrees with the Town Council’s accusations and votes of no confidence in his performance. He said he has “taken the high road” since the discovery of the school funding error last summer, and referred to the Board of Education’s extension of his contract as an example of the trust he has earned within the school system.

“I’ve had great support from teachers and administrators, and that’s where my strength comes from,” he said. “When I came to this district, we had a lot of academic, a lot of financial and a lot of personnel issues, and the board said to me, ‘Take care of business,’ and a lot of those things were long-standing issues that had been around for many, many years. That’s what I was charged with, and we’ve been successful.”

The only councilor to oppose the vote of no confidence in Rosenthal was Priscilla Jenkins, who also praised Rosenthal’s accomplishments during an interview this week. But even Jenkins took issue with some of Rosenthal’s actions after of the discovery of the school funding mistake.

Councilor Richard Henry, who has been the most vocal about his frustration with Rosenthal, proposed the vote of no confidence. While Henry said this week that he didn’t hold a grudge against the school district when the budget shortfall was first discovered by interim tax assessors last summer, his attitude soured when he learned about a letter the school district’s attorney had written to town officials in November.

School officials agreed to find savings in their own budget to make up for the shortfall, so that the town wouldn’t have to raise the property tax rate this year — an offer they say was not meant to suggest they were accepting blame.

But their November letter blamed the town for the more than $700,000 funding shortfall. It also accused the town of owing the school district $534,140 for separate budgeting errors and breaking the law by not providing those funds.

Rosenthal more recently has walked back one of those accusations, but he said the fact that school officials could not tell if those payments had been made indicated a larger breakdown in the school funding process.

Several councilors, though, characterized that letter as an attempt to cover up the truth.

“It’s very disheartening when they make accusations and we go and have to get lawyers involved and several auditors to research their accusations,” Henry said. “I don’t see what this is going to get them, out of this whole thing. … It’s come to point where we’re doing a disservice to folks in the town of Winthrop where we allow this to continue.”

Councilors also pointed to funding errors of more than $100,000 that were made by the School Department several years ago and that, they said, reflected a history of poor fiscal management by Rosenthal.

Fuller also referred to an accusation of workplace discrimination the school system faced in 2013, after Rosenthal was alleged to have questioned the writing ability of an administrator who was born outside the United States shortly before her contract was not renewed.

“It doesn’t help when you have had mistakes of that magnitude and legal issues,” Fuller said. “It raises questions of whether or not he should be in that position.”

But Geyer said that, if anything, Rosenthal inherited those older budget issues when he was hired for his position and helped the School Department recover from them. And Geyer said the school department’s decision not to renew that employee’s contract was necessary, however difficult it may have been.

“I think he did stuff that needed to be done,” Geyer said.

As the Town Council and the Board of Education begin to draft next year’s budgets, it’s an open question whether the School Department will be able to find enough savings this year to surmount the shortfall, or whether more savings will have to be found next year.

It also remains to be seen how well both sides will work together in the future.

A committee that included town and school representatives has taken steps in that direction, trying to establish better communications between both groups and creating a new document for advertising proposed budgets. Town employees also have said they might ask state education officials to review future budgets to give them an extra layer of scrutiny.

Jenkins, the only councilor who voted against the statement of no confidence in Rosenthal, said she hopes that vote will not exacerbate tensions but smooth the path forward.

“I think this resolution will hopefully satisfy the urge for blood on the side of the council,” she said. “I think that the committee that has been working on this has been, they’ve been cooperating, so I would hope that we’re headed into less stormy seas.”

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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