August 23 2018

School Committee Discusses Ways to Cover FY18 Deficit

By: Rich Hosford

The School Committee held a long and wide-ranging discussion on the reported FY18 school budget deficit during its meeting on Monday night.


The meeting started with an apology from School Committee Chair Kristin Russo on behalf of the entire department.


“I want to apologize for the state of the district right,” she said. “It’s never happened before and our focus should be on the teachers as they get ready for the new school year but instead our focus is on the frustrating experience of the situation we are in.”


The first real topic was the amount of the deficit. As reported by BNEWS, during the July 24 meeting Superintendent Eric Conti estimated the FY18 budget deficit to be roughly $1.7 million. That number was later revised downward during the August 8 Ways & Means meeting to roughly $880,000. This week Conti said the new estimate for the deficit is about $780,000.


Conti said there were a number of factors for the change over time, the first being that when the deficit initially came to his attention he had a moment of high emotion.


“I got the call in July and I went through a whole range of emotions,” he said. “I panicked a bit and that’s on me. I wanted to notify people as soon as possible.”


In the rush he said he and School Department Business Manager Nicole Coscia began looking through unpaid invoices and adding them up and came to the “worst case scenario” of $1.7 million.  


Coscia said that between then and now the department worked with Town Auditor Jim Powers who suggested they go through every purchase order that hadn’t been fulfilled. Upon doing so they found numerous duplicates as well as expenses that weren’t actually part of the operating budget that gave them a clearer picture of the actual deficit.


Conti said the source of the deficit was in employee salaries. In total he said the budget was roughly $1 million under in salaries in FY18. This was balanced somewhat by a budget surplus of $200,000 in non-salary items but that still leaves the deficit facing the department today.


He said there were a number of factors that caused the salary budget to be over expensed. These include legal settlements, retirements with vacation liability and an above-average number of maternity and paternity leaves that required the hiring of substitute teachers.


How to cover the deficit and pay the vendors and contractor owed money will be before Town Meeting in September. The legislative body will have to vote to either use funds in the Stabilization Account or to raise the funds through taxes in FY19. Either way the vote will require a rare 9/10 vote. If the article fails, the state will most likely require the town to raise the funds through taxes and the town will be open to lawsuits from those owed money.


Conti suggested some ways the School Department could “pay back” the town. He said there was $79,901 left over from completed capital projects that could be put back in the general fund. There is also an estimated $156,519 from projects that are ongoing but are estimated to cost less than originally budgeted for that he said could be transferred to the town.


Conti also floated the idea of holding off on projects approved last May but that haven’t been started yet. These include air conditioning at Francis Wyman, a rubber surface for a playground at Pine Glen and the Burlington High School’s front parking lot. In total these projects represent $269,315.


“So we could put $505,000 back into the general fund,” he said. “That leaves about $275,000 remaining.”


The School Committee did vote to transfer the $79,000 but there were concerns among both committee members and residents in the audience about holding off on the planned projects. The air conditioning system and rubber surface were seen as health and safety projects.


“I have some concern about waiting on the playground,” Member Christin Monaco said. “I can’t imagine why we would have asked for that money if it wasn’t a safety issue. The playground is a safety issue. Do we really want to risk a broken arm so we can look good by turning it back to the town?”


There was an agreement to further examine the possibilities and consider them at the next meeting.


Finally, Conti and Coscia said that moving forward there will be more up-to-date Electronic Purchase Order System run out of Coscia’s office for all department expenses. Up to now each department head with a budget was able to get bids for work or items but now all expenses will have to be signed off by Coscia. They also said that moving forward there will be monthly financial reports to the School Committee.  


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