School board told to restore confidence in budget, spending
Published 6:45 am, Tuesday, December 2, 2014
School officials, whose fiscal management prompted public criticism over the past year, on Monday heard comments and suggestions from other town officials concerning plans for the 2015-16 education budget.
The "insights and expectations," as one Board of Finance member called them, focused on fiscal responsibility and oversight, as well as rebuilding confidence.
One incident that drew criticism from finance board members was a $1.65 million overrun in costs for renovations at Kings Highway School that was revealed last summer by a municipal audit. That sparked controversy when it was revealed the money was shifted from the school district's operating budget to cover additional expenses for cleaning up lead and mold at the school.
Several weeks ago, more questions were raised when it was learned that the school district's continuing education fund balance declined a cumulative total nearly $700,000 over the course of the last three fiscal years. In the current fiscal year, school administrators predict a possible $25,000 deficit in that account, which is currently the subject of an independent town audit.
"What does fiscal oversight look like tonight versus last year?" Tooker asked.
"In the last six to nine months there could have been a better job in managing certain items," said Janis Collins, finance board member who is also on the audit committee that disclosed the Kings Highway overrun.
She said the budget proposed for the next fiscal year needs to be "clear and transparent" with a difference between "what's proposed and what's transferred," Collins said, adding that school official appear to have improved their financial management and tracking in recent months. This includes a new capital projects policy recently adopted by the board.
He also pointed out that, over the past year, there has also been progress in some joint projects between school and town officials, including those in the areas of workmen's compensation and insurance consulting.
First Selectman Jim Marpe, a former school board member, also cited that collaboration, saying he hopes it continues. "If you think there is an area of benefit to the town and BOE, let's discuss it," he said.
Stern also raised the issue of spending trends, saying the Board of Education is on a path that's "unsustainable" when their budget increase is "three times the rate of inflation." He said school officials need to get a strategy for dealing with labor and benefit costs.
Collins also said she would not advocate for reserves in the education budget. "I won't support them," she said. She said that when her committee was doing the audit, "there was no consistency in the reserves." She added: "You have to pay closer attention to reserves and how they are used."
But school board member Mark Mathias said he personally supports reserves. "I, for one, like to have a buffer," he said. He said the board could prepare a budget without reserves, but later might have to "go to you" -- the Board of Finance -- for additional funding because "there are things that are inevitable."
Also brought up was a recent lack of capital improvements to school facilities, with Sue Calger, co-president of the PTA Council, saying the school system "continues to have less than stellar facilities."
"Over the past five years or so projects have been pushed aside" and some buildings are "showing we have neglected them," added school board member Jeannie Smith.
"If there really is a need, let's talk about it," said Collins.
A suggestion was made that school board members, joined by other town officials as well as PTA members, plan a tour of school facilities to inspect capital-improvement issues.