BOSTON — A crackdown on abuses at special educational collaboratives in Massachusetts quickly emerged as one of the Legislature's first priorities of 2012 as lawmakers returned from holiday recess to begin the second year of their two-year session on Beacon Hill.
Senate President Therese Murray announced Wednesday that senators would debate a bill next week to address what she called "outrageous" problems uncovered by investigations last year of the Merrimack Special Educational Collaborative, including lavish spending on entertainment, unjustified salary expenses and improper charges to a related nonprofit group.
"Just in one collaborative alone, over $10 million was misused, money that should have gone to the children," Murray told reporters after the Senate held its first formal session since November.
A state audit also found evidence of money misspent at two other taxpayer-funded special education collaboratives, among 30 around the state that allow local school districts to pool resources to provide services to children with special needs.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, D-Boston, co-chair of the Education Committee, said the allegations "made the blood boil of every legislator in the building," especially since lawmakers constantly hear complaints from municipal officials about the high cost of special education.
The bill sponsored by Chang-Diaz would require the collaboratives to file audited financial statements annually with their boards of directors, member school districts and the state education board. The collaboratives would also have to keep an arm's length from related nonprofits and could not share with those groups board members or staff.
Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said he supports the bill, and Chang-Diaz also predicted broad backing in the House.
Stephen Theall, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization of Educational Collaboratives, agreed the legislation would provide necessary oversight and accountability for the collaboratives. But he also defended the organizations as providing a vital service to 75 percent of the state's school districts.
"Collectively, educational collaboratives save taxpayers millions of dollars each year by pooling resources to provide high quality, cost effective critical special education programming and other desired services," Theall said in a statement.
The initial House and Senate sessions of the new year were largely ceremonial as lawmakers looked toward issues that will be tackled in the coming months. The first year of the session brought, among other things, a historic casino gambling law, political redistricting and an overhaul of the probation department following reports of widespread hiring abuse.
Murray also said Wednesday she expects action this year on sweeping legislation to rein in soaring health costs in Massachusetts, though she would not commit to a timetable.
Gov. Deval Patrick filed legislation last February to move the state away from the current "fee-for-service" model for health care to a system of so-called "global payments," which stress overall patient outcomes over individual tests and procedures.
Murray said she expected the Senate bill, which is still being written, to be different from the governor's proposal. She did not specify the differences, but said lawmakers want to avoid a "one-size-fits-all" approach that could hurt specialized hospitals and some primary care physicians in the state.
The Legislature also could complete action this year on a sentencing bill that would bar parole for prisoners who have been convicted of more than two violent crimes. The measure passed both branches last year, but the Senate included it as part of a broader anti-crime bill that is under discussion by a conference committee.
The killing of a Woburn police officer in late 2010 by a career criminal who had been paroled a year earlier sparked renewed debate on the so-called "three strikes" measure.