School officials say tide turning in continuing ed budget's red ink
Editor's note: This updated report corrects earlier budget figures, based on information newly provided by school district officials.
School officials are giving assurances that they have turned the tide on red ink that the continuing education budget amassed over the last several years.
The full extent of the problem was discussed at last week's meeting of the Representative Town Meeting's Education Committee, where school district officials reported that despite a decline in the continuing education's fund balance of nearly $700,000 over the course of the last three fiscal years, they project the most recent account will have a $25,000 deficit.
The continuing education budget, however, is still the subject of an independent town audit. When the audit findings are officially reported to the Board of Finance, it could trigger another round of criticism of education budgeting that the financiers have unleashed twice before this year.
An earlier audit discovered that approximately $1,650,000 was shifted from education budget accounts, such as utilities, to cover cost overruns to remediate mold and lead at King's Highway School. While Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon had the power to make re-allocation -- and maintains that he made the right choice at the time -- Board of Finance members were angered that he acted without fully disclosing the large overruns.
Finance Board members also were concerned about the large amount of money budgeted for utilities -- apparently unneeded -- with one member calling it a "slush fund," and they contended that shifting large amounts between budget accounts could affect future budget planning.
The audit itself was prompted by discovery late last year of a deficit in the school district's health insurance account -- at one point, projected to be as high as $2 million -- but later said to have ended the fiscal year in the black.
Gordon said the big question that no one had asked was, "Is there anything else that could possibly come out from that era? ... And the answer is, yes."
"Continuing education is not in our operating budget," Landon told the committee. "It's an independent, self-sustaining enterprise."
A chronology of the continuing education budget, however, shows the sharp drop in its fund balance over the last five fiscal years left it in the red for the last two fiscal years, according to figures supplied by Elio Longo, the school district's business manager.
The account's fund balance at the end of the 2010 fiscal year was $567,251, according to Longo. But by the end of the 2011 fiscal year, expenditures outstripped revenue by $119,083 and the fund balance dropped to $448,168.
Another sharp drop was recorded by the end of the 2012 fiscal year, as spending exceeded revenue by $314,996, leaving a deeply reduced fund balance of $133,172.
And by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, as spending again exceeded revenue -- this time by $253,974 -- Longo reported the continuing education budget had fallen into deficit of $120,802.
And, as noted, school officials project the deficit -- yet to be audited -- for the 2014 fiscal year to be $24,926.
Over the course of the last three fiscal years, Longo said in an email, "the fund balance declined by $688,053. There is still more work to be done in turning the (continuing education) program back to profitability or break-even," he added.
"The continuing ed account has been used for a piggy bank for a long time," RTM member Jack Klinge, District 7, said at last week's meeting.
"In 2012-13, I saw that something was awry, or so I thought, in continuing ed," said Landon, who added that he contacted the state Department of Education and asked it to do an audit. "They came in and did an audit and gave us an audit report and gave it a clear bill of health, so we thought everything was OK."
"I identified revenue shortfalls in the not-summer programs," Longo said, which were "covered using summer proceeds, so you would borrow from the upcoming summer session to balance."
He said there were "draw-downs" from the continuing education budget that went to the utility budget and facility rentals. "All it takes is a couple of, three years of draw-downs" to accumulate a shortfall, he said.
"The director of continuing ed left us a few months ago," Landon said, "and I replaced her on a temporary basis with Brian Fagan," a former assistant superintendent in Westport.
"We're not claiming any malfeasance. What we're claiming is bad oversight," Landon said. "I don't want to place blame."
"It's very interesting," said Velma Heller, the RTM committee's chairwoman. "You eventually see things come home to roost, so to speak."