Cronyism: Part III

Based on the popularity of Cronyism Part I and Part II, we continue the series today with Part III.  We plan to wind down this topic shortly (with a little bit of nepotism next time) to start discussing what these conflicts of interest and the cronyism  cost the archdiocese, parishes, donors, and other stakeholders–and that is where your confidential input will be helpful.  Please see below for how you can help us with some key information.  Now onto Cronyism Part 3, featuring Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mary Grassa O’Neill and Dr. Ralph de la Torre, CEO at Caritas Christi.

Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Mary Grassa O’Neill first caught our attention when people saw her published annual salary of $325,000, making her the highest-paid employee in the Boston archdiocese.  In fact, we have been unable to identify a higher-paid public or Catholic school superintendent in the United States, and she may be the highest-paid administrator of any function in any diocese in the country.  Her school administrative competency is not being questioned here.  But, her salary and her hiring are both subjects of controversy, so first allow us to cover the pay.

The biography of Dr. Grassa O’Neill lists impressive accomplishments, especially in her most recent stint as Milton superintendent of schools from 1993 to 2003, where she raised $100 million to modernize schools and where her annual compensation was about $138,000 in 2003.  (This chart of Mass superintendent salaries says her successor was paid $168K in 2004, an increase of 22% from 2003, so that means Dr. O’Neill was making $138K in 2003).  By means of comparison, blog reader JamesBC commented on July 6:

Joel Klein, chancellor of the NY City public schools [editorial note,  the largest school system in the country], makes $250K/year. They teach 1.1 million students in 1600 schools with an annual budget of $17 billion. Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of the second-largest school system in the country, Los Angeles, also makes $250K/year. They have 694,288 students, 45,473 teachers and 38,494 other employees, and 1044 schools. The total school district budget for 2009-2010 is $7.3 billion. That’s billion with a “B.”  According to this 2007 article, the Boston public schools superintendent makes $275K/year with a $20K bonus if she hit performance-based goals, [According to blog reader, Mike T, that would top out at a max of $303K in 2010. ] They have 56,000 students. This base salary is $70,000 MORE than that of Thomas W. Payzant, who served as superintendent for 11 years.

You can make the comparison yourself vs the Boston archdiocese.  James BC volunteered that “New York and Los Angeles are 15-20X bigger, where the cost of living is arguably higher and the demands of the job vastly greater.”  Boston has 43,000 students (Pre-K-12th Grade) at 126 schools, where Mary Grassa O’Neill makes $325K, a multiple of 2.3X more than in her last school superintendent job and a significant amount more than any other comparable superintendent in the country where published figures are available.

For that $325K/year salary (plus benefits), let us look briefly at how the schools are doing lately and what we are getting.  Catholic school enrollment is down across the country and Boston is no exception. In Boston, 50 Catholic schools have closed or merged in the last seven years. Enrollment was at 153,000 in 1965, at 51,000 in 2005, and at 43,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.  In 2005 we had 153 schools and now it is down to 126.  How are Boston Catholic schools doing these days?  We are not exactly sure.  It would be interesting to know what goals Dr. Grassa O’Neill has been asked to achieve and how is she doing at achieving them.  Is it increasing test score results?  Raising money? Increasing enrollment?  Consolidating parish schools into larger archdiocesan “academy” schools?  Something else?  It would also be interesting to know how the archdiocese assesses whether we are getting our moneys’ worth out of what Dr. Grassa O’Neill is paid, along with the Deputy Director for Academic Excellence, the Associate Superintendent for Academic Excellence, the Associate Superintendent for Administration and Finance, the Executive Assistant to the Superintendent, and other staff.

But enough about salary.  Let us move onto what she did after Milton, prior to landing the job with the Boston archdiocese.  After retiring from the Milton job in 2003, O’Neill was at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for 5 years, as Managing Director for Professional Ed Programs and Director of The Principals’ Center.  At Harvard, she was a short stones throw away from Fr. Bryan Hehir (Kennedy School of Government), Tiziana Dearing (former Exec Director of Harvard’s Hauser Center and outgoing President of Catholic Charities of Boston), and Jack McCarthy (also at the Hauser Center, lecturer at the Kennedy School, and member of the Archdiocesan Finance Council).  We cannot confirm definitively to what extent she  may have caught the eye of any of these individuals, but we do know that Harvard–along with the banking sector and knowing Jack Connors–have proven to be excellent stepping stones to working with the Boston Archdiocese these days.

Finally there is the matter of her hiring.  Sr. Janet Eisner, President of Emmanuel College, headed the search committee that hired Dr. Grassa O’Neill.  (Sr. Eisner co-chaired the Meade-Eisner Reconfiguration Committee that reviewed parish closings a few years back, and she is sufficiently close to Cabinet Secretary for Healthcare and Social Services Fr. Bryan Hehir that he celebrated her 30th anniversary as President Mass this past June).  We have been told that Dr. O’Neill was actually a member of the schools superintenent search committee .   Apparently they did not find a qualified candidate willing to take the role in the first round of the search and at some point Dr. O’Neill was asked to apply for the job.  Assuming that is true, that would represent a novel form of conflict of interest, even for this archdiocese.  Jack Connors (representing the “2010 Initiative”) and Chancellor Jim McDonough would have been the ones who approved her $325K annual salary.

Oh we almost forgot to mention how small a world it really is these days. Archdiocesan General Counsel, Beirne Lovely, started working at the Archdiocese on January 2, 2008.  He is from Milton, and was Chairman of the Milton School Committee who hired Dr. Grassa O’Neill as Milton Superintendent of Schools.  On January 11, 2008, just 9 days after Atty Lovely started at the chancery, the Archdiocese announced they had picked a second Milton resident to lead one of its departments, namely Dr. Grassa O’Neill.  Same neighborhood.  Same parish (St. Elizabeth in Milton).  Same school system.  What a coincidence!  The Pastoral Center in Braintree is starting to feel like Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

At the risk of beating that one to death, let us move onto Dr. Ralph de la Torre, chief executive of Caritas Christi, or Caritas, as they seem to be calling it these days.  When the search was underway for the new CEO of Caritas in early 2008, the search committee had narrowed the field to three finalists when Jack Connors, chairman of the rival hospital network, Partners Healthcare, recommended de la Torre be considered. In April of 2008, de la Torre was hired.  Shortly thereafter, Caritas Norwood’s previous efforts that publicly condemned an unlevel playing field against Partners evaporated. Caritas had previously decried a “medical arms race in which the rich get richer and the poor face extinction competition” and called for action by the attorney general, but after de la Torre started, the Caritas complaints ceased and scheduled interviews with the Boston Globe were canceled.  In December of 2008, de la Torre hired as one of his first management hires, a former top executive of Jack Connors’ advertising firm (Hill Holliday), Brian Carty, in the role of chief marketing officer of Caritas.   If Caritas, or pieces of it, were to be sold by Cerberus, it would not be surprising to see Partners pick up some or all of it in the future. We also know that de la Torre and his Caritas colleagues  and relatives donated more than $34,000 to the senate campaign of Martha Coakley, who as Attorney General, now has critical responsibility for approving the sale of Caritas to Cerberus.  Granted, they may have supported Coakley for other reasons (e.g. her position on healthcare reform) and had Coakley won the seat, she would not be in the position to review and approve the sale.  But, she did not win the seat.  So today she sits with $34K received from Caritas people who have a vested interest in her giving approval for the deal.

We do not question Dr. de la Torre’s medical competence or hospital management competence—he turned a profit of $30 million last year and got the hospital’s bond rating up so they could reduce their debt fees and borrow $100 million to finance improvements, and he negotiated the deal with Cerberus to bring in even more money for the hospital, himself, and his management team.  But De la Torre was paid well–$1.3 million in 2009–for leading the hospital.  And he may become more controversial in Catholic circles based on fears about maintenance of the Catholic identity of Caritas.  Beyond the concerns we and others have reported, numerous reports received indicate that someone in a high position at Caritas has already authorized the removal of symbols of Catholic faith and Catholic identity at Caritas hospitals.  If anyone has photos of the lobby of St. Elizabeth Hospital before and after the portrait of Cardinal O’Malley was removed, please send them our way and the same holds for before/after photos of the statue of the Blessed Mother which has also apparently been removed from the Emergency Room area at St. E’s.  These moves would seem to validate the fears voiced previously.

Lastly, as we move in a few days from cronyism to how the conflicts cost parishes, we would like to ask for your help.  We have received several reports by laity, priests and pastors about concerns in working with the  Archdiocesan Parish Services office, and about real estate sales.  If a parish wants to undertake a renovation or improvement, they get a reasonable estimate from a local contractor, but it has to run through Parish Services, and they usually come back with a different architect or contractor who the parish must work with (apparently another example of cronyism) and at a higher cost as well.  Can you share examples in confidence to us by sending us confidential email via “Contact Us.”  Also, our mention of the former Abington Bank employee turned diocesan Real Estate Director brought emails from people complaining about improprieties in how the archdiocese is selling real estate to cronies of certain people without proper oversight.  We welcome additional specific details if you have them of past sales or properties to watch in the near future. News tips, videos, guest-blogger submissions, and other comments are welcome, and we will always protect the identity of contributors unless you wish to be identified.

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