standing Westerly Town Hall

WESTERLY — School officials say sharing a purchasing agent with the town is cumbersome and a superfluous expense, but their counterparts on the town side of local government say the joint approach was agreed to and works just fine for them.

The issue cropped up in January, when a proposed ordinance that would have uncoupled the position was tabled by the Town Council and made its way back to the council earlier this month.

"I put it on [the agenda] for clarification, not to change any decisions the Town Council has made," Town Council President Christopher Duhamel said during the council's May 7 meeting.

Duhamel explained that Mark Bednarski, the town and schools purchasing agent, reviews proposed purchasing documents and decisions to determine whether "they are in conformance with state law, and if they're not he would raise a question or" return it to school officials for additional work.

"There is no animosity. It's just following state law," Duhamel continued.

In April, School Committee Chairwoman Christine Cooke wrote to Town Manager J. Mark Rooney and Duhamel saying the approach to purchasing "has impeded our Superintendent and our Director of Facilities' ability to procure the materials needed to properly maintain our school facilities."

And an e-mail from John Pagano, the school district's director of buildings and maintenance, said problems with securing contracts for small jobs have led to work being deferred for years.

Rooney, in a response to Cooke, noted that the Town Council had voted to table the issue in January. He went on to say he had directed Bednarski to be "as flexible as the rules will allow when working with the school department and to assist in gaining their compliance with the rules and policies up-front."

On Thursday, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau said school department employees could take on purchasing duties, which he said would keep reduce costs for the department, which currently pays half of the shared purchasing agent's salary.

"I have people in the School Department with that kind of experience, so if I have the capacity on our side to handle purchasing and I'm in a position where our budget is being level-funded, the question comes up — why are we paying half the salary for a guy on the town side that potentially could be a redundancy?'" Garceau said.

The Town Council declined the School Committee's request to increase the allocation of local tax dollars by $1.6 million in the 2020-21 schools budget and instead opted to keep the allocation at its current level.

Garceau also said the shared arrangement presents oversight problems, since he has no role in evaluating the purchasing agent. Sharing the position also seems to cause delays in the purchasing process, he said.

"Things tend to take, very often, far longer than we are accustomed to, so I've had conversations with Mark Rooney about how we can streamline it and keep things moving, and he has been helpful in that regard. We're trying to figure out how to make it a more manageable situation," Garceau said.

Rooney, during a recent discussion with the Town Council, reiterated his request to Bednarski to work cooperatively with the School Department and said there are times when time pressures arise.

Cooke on Friday said she hopes the situation improves.

"The district is fortunate enough to have a top-notch, professional and effective director of facilities in John Pagano. He and his team have been working hard every day, even through this pandemic, to improve and maintain our district’s facilities. I am hopeful that Manager Rooney and Dr. Garceau will work together to develop a purchasing process that helps, not hinders, the progress being made," Cooke said.

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