Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Matthew D’Andrea came under harsh criticism by the all-Island school committee this week for overstepping his bounds when he granted raises to three staff members over the summer without seeking prior approval.

Mr. D’Andrea opened a meeting of the committee Thursday by asking the board to retroactively approve the three merit raises which he put through in early July for English Language Learner director Leah Palmer, administrative assistant Ruda Stone and shared services coordinator Susan Conlan.

Combined, the salary increases total $15,000 in addition to a two per cent raise already factored into in the budget.

Mr. D’Andrea said to cover the raises he transferred funds from a small surplus in the health insurance budget, which became available after someone did not take the family health insurance plan.

The superintendent acknowledged that he had acted outside the bounds of his authority. He said he had not asked for permission from the committee prior to transferring the funds because it “slipped my mind.”

“It’s been a tough beginning of the year . . . I overlooked this,” he said. “I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, and this was a mistake. That’s it, this was a mistake.”

Committee members were openly surprised and chagrined.

“What happened was not a small snafu,” said committee member Kimberly Kirk. “This is big.”

While committee members said they agreed all three employees should be rewarded for their job performance, they leveled sharp criticism at Mr. D’Andrea for his poor handling of the matter.

“I am deeply distressed this didn’t come to the school committee before it happened. Really, deeply distressed,” said committee member Kate DeVane. “This is entirely unorthodox.”

Chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd also took issue with the fact that Mr. D’Andrea took the funds from a one-time savings and put them toward a recurring expense.

“There should be sanctions,” Mr. Manter said of the superintendent. “He is the leader of our community and our school system. People should be held accountable. . . We have the whole fiscal year ahead of us, not knowing what is on the horizon.”

Assistant superintendent Richard Smith defended Mr. D’Andrea.

“Matt was supportive of these people, and that’s one big area of leadership,” he said. “In the end this is about merit, and I believe we can support his authority.”

In the end the committee voted 8-1 to approve the raises, but did not approve the transfer of funds.

It will now be up to Mr. D’Andrea to find a way to rebalance the budget, and return to the committee with a plan.

The original purpose of the meeting was to discuss and vote to certify the superintendent’s shared services budget for fiscal year 2021.

The $7 million budget represents a 4.29 per cent increase over last year. Salaries and fixed expenses account for 87 per cent of the budget.

Mr. D’Andrea is paid an annual salary of $180,000 which will increase to $185,000 in the next fiscal year.

Speaking about the budget, finance director Mark Friedman said the majority of line items are level funded with one notable exception. Spending on Project Headway, an integrated preschool program that serves children with disabilities, will see a 46 per cent increase due to rising enrollment and the need to increase staff hours. The Project Headway budget will go from $577,299 to $826,591.

Project Headway is an early childhood program for three and four year olds with disabilities. There are 42 children in the program, with 14 students housed in each of three locations: Grace Church in Vineyard Haven, the Oak Bluffs School and West Tisbury School. The program is free for children with disabilities; tuition is charged for nondisabled children who attend.

The $250,000 increase will go primarily toward paying staff, school business administrator Amy Tierney said later. She explained that at Grace Church, where the program expanded to a third location last year, the teacher’s salary was paid initially from a grant. Next year the salary will be included in the shared services budget.

Ms. Tierney also said the program is costly due to specialized transportation, specialized teachers and a small student-teacher ratio.

At the meeting last week, Ms. Devane praised the program and said it could be a model for universal pre-kindergarten in the public schools.

“It is a wonderful, wonderful program,” she said. “I think that looking towards universal pre-k and project headway expansion, we should try to house one in every school system on the Island.”

The budget was approved unanimously.