Published September 07. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Maria Whalen remembers the first argument she had with her boss after she was hired as business manager of the New London school district in 1985.
"He couldn't understand why I wanted an IBM and not an Apple,'' she recalled Friday. "I didn't need a program to write letters, I needed a program to crunch numbers."
Whalen, who has been crunching the numbers in the 3,100-student school district for 28 years, is retiring at the end of September.
"I don't like to admit defeat, but I'm tired,'' said the 59-year-old director of business and finance, who has an MBA from Long Island University. "I'd lie if I didn't say this was my life, but I'm afraid I'm exhausted."
Whalen is one of the longest-serving finance directors in the state to remain in the same district.
"I'm aware of one other business manager who has been in the same district for 30 years,'' said Sharon S. Bruce, executive director of the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials. "Twenty-eight years is a long time. It's quite an accomplishment. It's remarkable."
Whalen, who oversees a $40.4 million budget and more than $10 million in grant money, was hired by former Superintendent Rene Racette. The school budget for 1985-86 was $12.1 million, and Whalen remembers assembling the document by hand and drawing pie charts with a compass.
"Like everything else, the biggest change has been technology,'' she said. "It's marvelous for us. It's quicker and more efficient ... but there's also more expectations.''
In her office, Whalen, who earns about $125,000 a year, sits at a desk surrounded on three sides by piles of folders and papers, a computer and a printer, three-ring binders and a yellowing adding machine. Her bookcases are filled and cardboard boxes on the floor hold more documents.
Though everything is available online, Whalen said, she still likes to check and recheck numbers on hard copies - and she still uses her adding machine. If someone wants a figure, she said, she knows it off the top of her head. But she never confirms anything without looking it up.
The finance office, which includes four other employees, handles payroll, purchase orders, accounts payable, the child nutrition program and educational grants. Whalen also provides support for all the school employees with retirement and benefit packages. She's also involved with contract negotiations.
Current Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer said Whalen is meticulous and "scrupulous to the penny" about making sure all transactions in the district are accurate. Auditors who work with her say her stuff is virtually always accurate, he said. "She's the best CFO (chief financial officer) I've ever worked with in my career,'' he said. "It's going to be a very significant loss."
Melissa Flores-Seijo, who is now second in command in the finance office, will take over Whalen's duties, Fischer said. Flores-Seijo has a degree in finance from the University of Connecticut and is a certified business manager.
As the city looks to tighten its coffers and save taxpayer money, it wants to combine city and school finance offices - a controversial topic for both sides.
But Whalen said she thinks it's a good idea, as long as both departments have someone who is looking out for their interests. "My biggest concern, when this first happened, is I need to protect the superintendent and the school board and how we spend our money," she said. "The district's interests are my priority."
Whalen said she would expect the city's finance director to feel the same way about the municipal budget.
She gives kudos to the state-appointed special master who has come up with a plan that includes a proposed memorandum of understanding that would include one finance director for the entire city and two separate officers - one to oversee school spending and another to oversee municipal spending.
The Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who moved to New London when her husband took a job at Pfizer Inc., has worked under four superintendents and one interim superintendent. She recalled bringing her two sons to work with her when they were young; they played ball in the hallway and watched television in the break room. It was a challenge, she said.
Over the years, Whalen said, people encouraged her to move on to other jobs where she could make more money, but part of what she liked about the job was that she was allowed to take time to attend various events when her children were young. "Being close to them was more important than switching jobs," she said. "And my kids talk about their fond memories."
One son, who graduated from New London High School, is now in medical school at the University of Connecticut. The other, a St. Bernard High School graduate, is in law school at New York University.
Whalen plans to take a month to take care of herself and her family and says she'll be around to help her replacement.
"You have to support the superintendent and the board, and keep the focus on the youngsters,'' she said. "You have to be honest and you have to do what's right."
The past 28 years, she said, feel like a blink.
"It's all been very rewarding," she added. "You do what you need to do and you do it for all the kids in the district."