School Department: Integrity of budget panel's recommendations in 'serious doubt'

School Department: Integrity of budget panel's recommendations in 'serious doubt'

Budgeters: School officials are trying to distract from facts

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Saying members of the Budget Committee have shown a bias against public education, the School Department released a 31-page report this week responding to board recommendations that would significantly alter the way the district is funded.

The analysis, presented by school administration with the help of attorney Benjamin Scungio and auditor Jeffrey Wadovick at a special meeting of the School Committee on Thursday, May 9, provided a page-by-page response to the committee's suggested 2014 spending plan, which was delivered to the Town Council on April 15.

The volunteer five-member budget panel recommended level funding for schools, pending the department's ability to provide more information, and also said the town should move line items, such as the contingency fund and spending for sports programs, over to the municipal side of the budget, where they could be controlled and monitored.

Read School Department's response at And the Budget Committee's initial report to the Town Council at in the left hand column under 'At a Glance.'

The committee report, which is used annually by the council to help design the town's spending plan, also said that the School Department was not accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each year when creating its budgets, a claim that school officials denied.

"The community should be concerned about the capacity of the Budget Committee to render a fair, non-biased, knowledgeable, and equitable recommendation regarding the School Department's FY14 budget for the reasons stated and the references made throughout this report," the document began.

According to the department, the committee failed to note many of the obstacles that schools face in accurately planning for spending by the town's budget deadlines - from changing state appropriations, to Basic Education Plan requirements. The school analysis also states that the budgeters did not focus on student needs, and said several of the conclusions they reached could violate state law.

"From a legal perspective, the Rhode Island General Assembly gave School Committees the responsibility of the entire care, control and management of all public schools interests. Thus, School Committees are charged by state law with the responsibility of determining educational needs in a community," it says.

While much of the School Department response is critical of the committee's continued requests for information, and members' lack of knowledge of the rules governing school funding, it also recognizes that much of the problem is the result of a "dysfunctional process" driven by a charter-mandated timeline for budget submission.

"The present date for submission of the school district's budget is so early in the budget process that much of the data required to make meaningful budget decisions is not yet available," the report states.

The department charges throughout the document that most, if not all, of the committee's recommendations are politically motivated and that data explaining the district's position is intentionally left out of the opinions.

"It appears the Budget Committee knowingly and irresponsibly perpetrated a seriously inaccurate statement when it stated publicly that the district does not account for or report all anticipated revenue," the document says, pointing out that all of the information is available on the state Department of Education's Uniform Chart of Accounts and that the committee members' issue pertains to the form in which they received the data. Further, it states, Medicaid reimbursements cannot "legally be used to reduce required local appropriation or affect maintenance of effort requirements."

On the specific subject of whether or not Medicare should be reported on the annual budget, however, which was a large thrust of the committee's argument, the School Department seemed to offer little debate.

"The auditor general currently requires that Medicaid reimbursement funds be located in the general revenue section of the budget," said Scungio.

Budget Chair Michael Clifford said that opinion from the school's attorney "is an admission that we were right. He acknowledges that the revenue is required to be listed in the budget," Clifford said.

The chairman said that the budget board met Monday to discuss the document released last week by Lindberg, among other issues.

"We primarily focused on the letters from Mr. Scungio and Mr. Wadovick," he said. "The other pages do not focus on facts. They contain a lot of 'he said, she said,' allegations, half-truths, and extremely biased editorial comments throughout. Its purpose is distract people from focusing on the facts and the recommendations."

Clifford points out that while many of the recommendations do require some legal legwork, on suggestions such as the idea of protecting funding for school sports, the attorney states they are "inappropriate" in his commentary, not "illegal."

"They are playing on words," Clifford said, adding that it appears changes could be made in a way that would comply with the laws Scungio cited.

Clifford also disputes the department's assertion that his committee is not "knowledgeable" enough to make recommendations. "That is absolute nonsense. We have a thorough understanding of school funding. We read every single item that (Lindberg) put in the budget book and we understand all of his items."

Medicare, he added, is only one piece of the puzzle.

"They had just as much unreported revenue in other categories," said Clifford, a reality he says is acknowledged in the department's own report.

In the category of rental fees for buildings and fields, the department states that a committed account was established several years ago based upon the concept of cost recovery and facilities upkeep.

"It should be noted that every dime has been expended to improve facilities, etc., that in several cases had not been done after repeated capital requests to the town," the report stated. "There is little belief that the town would allocate all such revenues for continued improvement and care of the School Department facilities."

Clifford said this type of logic is precisely the problem.

"They're missing the point and they are minimizing what they've done. They do not have the legal authority to appropriate any amount of money, whether it's for a good cause or a poor cause. That lies with the Town Council." All such projects, he notes, from the building of fences to improvements to fields, are supposed to be first vetted by the planning board.

"It is my opinion that the very first sentence in the report should have included an apology to the community and its taxpayers for having spent hundreds of thousands of the taxpayers dollars each year for several years without authorization from the town to do so," Clifford said.

Town Council President John Flaherty is currently in the process of setting up a joint meeting between the council, the School Committee and the Budget Commission to discuss school funding.