Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
School board hires Public Works Director Kleinhans as maintenance, custodial manager

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

VERNON — The new school superintendent has hired the controversial head of the town’s Public Works Department as manager of schools’ maintenance and custodial services, raising concerns about double dipping from both town and school coffers.

School Superintendent Mary P. Conway introduced Public Works Director Robert Kleinhans as the new maintenance and custodial services manager during the Board of Education meeting Monday, lauding the move as a step toward cost-saving consolidation of services between the town and schools.

Board members were informed that Kleinhans already had been working in the position for three weeks, and “so far he’s found a lot of good work to be done,” Conway said.

Technically, Kleinhans is a temporary employee because the manager’s union he would be required to join has yet to agree to his hire.

“We are still working with the union to get some kind of permanent agreement … so this is a stop-gap measure,” Conway said.

The school managers’ union has only two members, food services director Monica Pacheco and assistant director of plant operations Joseph Ganges.

Conway said Kleinhans is employed on a temporary basis for 120 days, the maximum time period allowed under union rules, after which the plan is to hire him for a “permanent trial” period of 18 months.

Kleinhans will be compensated $10,000 for the four months he is working, Conway said, though Democrat Paul Stansel said board members have not seen any terms of Kleinhans’ employment.

There is a draft contract for Kleinhans’ further 18 months, but board Chairwoman Anne Fischer said today that it is a work in progress and would not provide a copy or further details for publication.

She did say, however, that the contract, “would be $30,000 paid to the town,” which the town then could use for school maintenance, including Kleinhans’ salary. That entire amount could be given directly to Kleinhans, but “in terms of making town decisions, I can’t really say,” Fischer said.

The $30,000 annually would be the maximum compensation Kleinhans could receive as school maintenance director, Fischer said.

No different than hiring outside firm: Apel

While Fischer said Kleinhans’ salary would be funneled through the town, other board members insisted Monday that his roles as public works director and school maintenance director are separate and there is no reason to be concerned about crossover.

“This would be no different than if we went out and hired a maintenance firm to consult and take over the managerial duties,” Republican board member George Apel said.

But board Democrats were not so convinced that hiring Kleinhans, who already draws a salary of $92,123 a year as head of public works, would be the same as contracting services through a consulting firm.

“This is not the way the committee wanted to do this,” Democrat Kyle Percy said in response to Apel’s defense of the arrangement.

Percy, Apel, Fischer, and Republican Vice Chairman Dean Houle make up the Finance Committee, which had been exploring consolidation of maintenance services for months, Fischer said.

Kleinhans presented the board with a “very long, very detailed” presentation on his approach to consolidation in the spring, Conway said, but board Democrats seemed surprised Kleinhans was picked for the job.

“The proposal was to contract services through the public works director position, not to hire Mr. Kleinhans as a temporary employee,” Stansel said.

Stansel went on to say that Kleinhans, “is now an employee of both entities. …I don’t know why this was done and I don’t know why it wasn’t discussed with us. I think this was a terrible idea.”

Fischer said today that a separate search committee tasked with replacing retired school maintenance director Richard “Chico” Parrot did not turn up any suitable candidates, leaving the job vacant for almost nine months.

“Several people applied and the committee decided they were not qualified for the position,” Fischer said.

Fischer said Parrott was paid around $70,000 a year, and with benefits and longevity pay, he pulled in $105,307 for the 2009 fiscal year, putting him at number 25 on a list of the town’s highest-paid employees.

Parrott since has been hired as the mail clerk for the schools, working in the same department he used to head.

Even if the board decided not to hire Kleinhans when his 120-day trial is up Jan. 5, his compensation from both the town and the school board will be $102,123 this year.

As permanent school maintenance director, Kleinhans would make a combined $122,123 annually, which would elevate him to the fourth-highest paid employee in town.

Kleinhans’ pay is ‘nominal,’ Fischer says

But Fischer said she’s not at all concerned about Kleinhans drawing two salaries and double dipping from both parts of the budget.

“It’s a very nominal fee,” Fischer said of the board’s financial responsibility.

In essence, she said, hiring Kleinhans will save the board $70,000 a year, though Democrats have yet to question why the board has been keeping a full-time employee in the position unnecessarily for so long.

However, board Democrats raised concerns about Kleinhans “serving two masters,” and whether he would be able to perform both roles adequately.

In his position as public works director, Kleinhans said he is a non-union employee working 35 hours a week, though he put his actual time spent on the job at around 50 to 60 hours a week.

“We are keeping track of the hours that Mr. Kleinhans is working for the Board of Education,” Conway said, and emphasized that it is the town’s responsibility to do the same while he is on their time.

Apel agreed, adding, “We still have a director, it’s just that it’s being filled in a different manner than normal. …Nothing has changed.”

Democrat Susan Hesnan repeatedly questioned Conway’s decision and the lack of transparency surrounding it, saying that, “I still don’t see what I need to see.”

Frustrated, Houle directed board members to stop questioning Conway and get behind Kleinhans.

“This is being done in the best interest of the town, and I think you have to recognize that,” Houle said. “This is saving the town money. …We should be putting our efforts into trying to make this work.”

Ward has approved job

Kleinhans’ contract with the town allows him to be employed outside of his current public works director position as long as he has permission from the Town Administrator John D. Ward, Conway said.

Assistant Town Administrator Peter Graczykowski attended Monday’s meeting with Kleinhans to confirm that he had Ward’s permission to be employed by the school board.

When asked about certain details in Kleinhans’ draft contract, Conway said she was told that “this is what the Town Council wants.”

The issue, however, has yet to come before the Town Council, a fact confirmed by Stansel, Graczykowski, and Democratic council member Pauline Schaefer, who said today that council members have not been made aware of the schools’ plan to hire Kleinhans.

“We have not heard about this at all, and this has to be approved by the council, any other job that he has to do, anything, has to come in front of the council,” Schaefer said.

Conway said that the board’s lawyer, Fred Dorsey, determined that Conway has the right to hire Kleinhans for up to 120 days without input from the council or even board members.

“Given that information, we asked Bob Kleinhans to assist us in managing our maintenance and custodial services,” Conway wrote in an informational report to the board.

Kleinhans, who several years ago moved from Vernon to the Niantic section of East Lyme, has been a hub of partisan controversy for years, starting with his tenure on the council from 1997-2005. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the 8th House District seat, and lost the mayoral election to Ellen Marmer in 2005.

Kleinhans was forced to resign from the town’s Economic Development Commission when Mayor Jason L. McCoy hired him as public works director in November. However, he filled in as economic development coordinator and recording secretary for the commission this year when Assistant Town Planner Marina Rodriguez was out on medical leave.

Democrats rallied against Kleinhans’ hiring, saying his private business connections and political dealings had resulted in blatant cronyism in the town’s administration.

More recently, however, fervor over his position had died down in light of a largely successful campaign to switch the town over to cost-saving automated recycling and refuse collection.

McCoy, Conway, and Assistant Superintendent Deborah Murasso could not be reached for comment today.

Copyright © 2010 - Journal Inquirer