BAR HARBOR — Marc Gousse, superintendent of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS), has asked Cross Insurance Agency to bill him for the price of two tickets to the Sept. 24 game between the New England Patriots and Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
He said he did so to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Gousse and MDI High School Athletic Director Bunky Dow attended the Patriots game as guests of Cross Insurance. They also were among about 100 people, Gousse estimated, at a pregame lunch that Cross hosted at the stadium.
The game was played 13 days after two Cross representatives came to MDI High School at Gousse’s invitation to present a health insurance option called a “gap plan” to several dozen MDIRSS teachers and other employees. Gousse said at the time that he thought a gap plan, which is offered by various companies including Cross, would benefit both MDIRSS schools and their employees by reducing insurance costs without compromising health coverage.
In the days following the football game, Gousse learned that some school employees were questioning the propriety of his accepting the tickets from Cross. He is adamant that it was not inappropriate.
“This is something that in my previous district was not at all out of the norm,” Gousse said.
He was superintendent of schools in Westbrook before assuming his current position 15 months ago.
“For anybody to suggest there’s a conflict of interest is disappointing,” he said. “I try to hold myself to a higher standard than anybody else would expect.”
Cross Insurance Vice President Allen Robbins sent Gousse an email on Tuesday in which he said, “It is unfortunate that some view the [Gillette Stadium] event as a conflict when we all know that you do not make any final decisions on employee benefits and that they are decided by the school board and negotiated under the CBA (collective bargaining agreement).
“The event is a nonbusiness event. You were invited to attend the event under no conditions or expectations from me or Cross Insurance for any future business.”
Robbins said in the email that Gousse was provided with “buffet lunch and two bowl seating game tickets” valued at $125 each, but no travel or parking expenses. He noted that Gousse had not asked him to write the email.
Presumably, the $125 value represents the per-ticket amount that Cross paid for a block of South end-zone seats at the stadium. However, Robbins did not respond to the Islander’s calls for clarification.
For the Patriots’ next home game, against the Atlanta Falcons on Oct. 22, the lowest single-ticket price listed online as of Tuesday for seats in the area where Gousse and Dow were sitting was $340. That price was on the Vivid Seats website. The per-ticket price on the Patriots’ ticket website was $368.
As for the gap insurance plan, Gousse said, “We’re exploring a concept. There has been nothing proposed to the [school system] board. We’re going to explore a number of vendors. So, this isn’t a slam dunk for anybody.”
He said he decided “on my own volition, without any pressure from anyone” to reimburse Cross for the football tickets.
“I’m paying that out of pocket. I don’t want there to be any question about my integrity. My integrity is more important to me than a ticket to a game or event.”
As for any school personnel who question his integrity, Gousse said, “I would caution anybody to be really careful about suggesting anything inappropriate on my part because, the bottom line is, they are getting very dangerously close to a personnel matter. They want to be really careful about potentially suggesting my reputation is anything less than aboveboard.”
Heather Jones, chairman of the MDIRSS board, said Gousse called to tell her about attending the football game after he had heard some complaints. Asked if she thought Gousse had acted improperly in accepting the tickets, she said, “I think the timing is bad, but I don’t think Cross is trying to woo Marc into doing something, or vice versa.
“Marc was given the directive by the board a while ago to look at how we can approach health insurance,” Jones continued. “So, he is seeing if there are ways we can maintain a health insurance policy for our teachers, but somehow save costs.
“If we were to do something with gap insurance, Cross Insurance is just one business that offers it. There are other businesses we could go to.”
Jones said that if anyone had concerns about Gousse accepting the football tickets, they should have raised them through internal channels.
“There is a protocol if people have an issue,” she said. “They can talk with their principal; they can talk to a school board member; they can talk to the person directly. But to go directly to the newspaper, I think it is incredibly irresponsible and it is wrong.”
(Only one person contacted the Islander directly, and that was after the matter was already being talked about in the schools and the community.)
The school system has a policy titled Complaints About School Personnel, but it does not specify a process for dealing with complaints about the conduct of the superintendent.